carry edmondson/usa today sportsMichael Crabtree caught two passes for 68 yards in his season debut Sunday.

Giants should try to deal Panda

With Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence under contract, the Giants’ next conundrum is figuring out how Pablo Sandoval fits into the team’s long-term puzzle.

When Major League Baseball’s free agency bonanza gets underway at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday, the Giants will be in the market for a starting pitcher and an outfielder. If Brian Sabean is thinking proactively, he’ll start shopping the Kung Fu Panda, too.

Like Lincecum, Sandoval is a fan favorite around China Basin, but at this point, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it would make sense to retain the 27-year-old third baseman after his contract expires next fall.

Sandoval is a wildly inconsistent player with tremendous upside; the Giants should get something for him while he’s still an asset in their portfolio.

The problem with Sandoval is that his off-the-field commitment to baseball wavers. His weight fluctuations aren’t just a reflection of his food consumption, but a lifestyle that conflicts with the responsibilities of a modern-day, big-league ballplayer.

Sandoval was questioned about an alleged sexual assault incident in May 2012, and while the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office lacked sufficient evidence to arrest him, the incident raised questions about his priorities.

Why would he put himself in such a situation when he was away from the team on the disabled list?

Sandoval reported to spring training overweight and out of shape again in February, sending the message that he doesn’t take his conditioning seriously.

Without consistent work habits, the portly third baseman will find it challenging to play catch-up as he pushes closer to his 30th birthday.

Sandoval did lose weight as the 2013 season progressed, though, proving he’s capable of flipping the switch when the desire strikes. It wouldn’t be surprising if he puts together a monster season in 2014 with free agency looming, which is why the Giants should be looking to trade him this winter.

One of two things seems likely to happen with Sandoval next season.

He shows up overweight, he’s inconsistent and the Giants get a clear sense of his value heading into the offseason. If this is the way things unfold, they can let him walk when he enters free agency or retain him at a reduced cost, knowing his career will be filled with peaks and valleys.

The other potential plot line is that he gets into the best shape of his life, has a career year and his value soars right when he hits the market.

This is a nightmare scenario for Sabean, because he’d be under fire to open the vault for a player who will have proved he’s more committed to himself than the team.

But if the Giants trade Sandoval now, they can get a return on his stock, and with Marco Scutaro in the infield — who has played third base in the past — they have the flexibility to make such a move.

The Panda is a lovable, affable player who’s wormed his way into fans’ hearts, but the five-year sample suggests he’s a risky long-term investment.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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