In the Giants’ press box late last season, as Pablo Sandoval stumbled to the end of a bad season, the guessing was that he’d get into shape for his final season before free agency so he could score a big contract.
So, Sandoval lost a considerable amount of weight in the offseason and reported to camp this spring in his best condition in years. Surprise No. 1. Now, his agent is reportedly seeking a contract extension modeled on what outfielder Hunter Pence got, five years for $90 million. Surprise No. 2.
The Giants aren’t biting, and good for them. They’ve given big contracts to Buster Posey and Matt Cain, but they’re both solid citizens who always give their best. Cain had his problems last season because he’d pitched so many high-stress innings in the 2012 postseason, as the Giants won the World Series for the second time in three years. Posey also tired late in the season because of the strain of the previous season. But I expect both to bounce back this year.
Pence played out the final year of his old contract last season because the Giants wanted to see what he would do. They saw a high-energy player who played in every game and gave his best effort every day.
That doesn’t describe Sandoval. He’s an extraordinary athlete, ambidextrous (when a hard-hit ball knocked his glove off one time in the minors, he threw the runner out left-handed) and with great power. Nobody will ever forget the towering home run he hit off Justin Verlander, the best pitcher in baseball that year, in the 2012 World Series.
He has also been a young man with little personal discipline. He was seriously overweight in the second half of last season, unable to move well in the field and inconsistent at the plate. Sandoval has always been a bad-ball hitter, often getting base hits, even home runs off pitches well out of the strike zone. But last season, he became a bad-ball swinger. By the second half of the season, he wasn’t hitting and was a distinct liability in the field.
It would be sheer stupidity for the Giants to give Sandoval a Pence-type contract at this point. They haven’t done anything that stupid since they signed Barry Zito to that $126 million contract.
They can afford to wait because there’s a clause in the free agency procedure which gives them partial protection: If they make a qualifying offer to Sandoval as he enters free agency, a team signing him would lose its first-round pick in the draft. In recent years, the draft has become an important part of building big-league teams. Posey, Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum were all first-round picks by the Giants.
So, the number of teams which would be willing to take a chance on Sandoval would be limited, as would his bargaining power.
The best move for both Sandoval and the Giants would be for him to play out the season, stay in control of his eating and once again become the important player he was earlier in his career. Then the Giants would be willing to give him a lucrative long-term contract. But to do it now on faith? No way.