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Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Issuing A SharkCueto Warning: Grading the Giants Offseason

It's not even February but it's safe to say that the Giants have done the majority of their heavy lifting this offseason. They came into the offseason with about 50M to spend on players for the 2016 season and to Giants fans delight, they spent it. After the 2015 season, the Giants had one primary focus: Improve the starting rotation. As a secondary goal, they needed to get more depth in the outfield. Their infield and bullpen were set. So what did they do? They signed two solid starting pitchers and a centerfield / leadoff guy.

Perfect.

The Giants were in the Greinke sweepstakes until the very end. They almost pulled off the upset by luring Greinke away from Los Angeles until those pesky, new-money Dbacks came charging in and surprised both LA and SF to sign Greinke at the last second. Regardless, Zack Greinke is no longer a Dodger and that is a win for the Giants. The ink on Greinke's contract had barely dried when the Giants immediately went to their fallback option and signed Jeff Samardzija to a 5yr/90M. Jeff Samardzija is no Zack Greinke. But he's also no Mike Leake. He's sort of a nice combination of the two to be honest. He has some major ace like talent in that arm of his, something Greinke has but Leake does not. But he hasn't really been able to consistently harness that talent, making him an overall relatively average starting pitcher, making him more like Leake than Greinke in regards to results. The Giants signed Samardzija hoping he could start consistently being a solid above average starting pitcher. They took this same gamble on another guy with a big fastball about 15 years ago when they traded for some guy named Jason Schmidt. All he did for the Giants was go 78-37 with a 3.36 ERA and finish in the top 5 for the Cy Young twice. The Giants would be stoked if they could turn Jeff Samardzija into that kind of success story. He DOES have that talent. But if you asked the Giants to be honest, they'd be happy to just get 200 effective innings out of him each season for the life of the contract. When Samardzija was signed, he wasn't quite the #2 the Giants and their fans wanted to pair with Bumgarner but at least if you squinted your eyes hard enough, fans could talk themselves into Samardzija being a #2. He did have a 2.99 ERA in 2014, not exactly the distant past.

But the Samardzija signing itself wasn't enough to allay fear about the rotation. Peavy and Cain are wildcards and Heston was great in the first half of 2015 and not very good in the 2nd half. The Giants needed more. Who was that 2nd pitcher going to be? Was it going to be Mike Leake? Wei-Yin Chen? With David Price in Boston and Greinke in Arizona and Jordan Zimmermann in Detroit, there didn't seem to be any other top starters out there to pair with Bumgarner. There were murmurs the Giants were interested in trading for Jose Fernandez or Danny Salazar or Carlos Carrasco but the asking price for those guys was sky high. Combine that with the fact that the Giants farm system never gets love and that their better prospects were at the lower levels and it looked like the Giants were going to have to settle for another middle tier starter as opposed to someone elite.

And then Johnny Cueto happened. Johnny Cueto, the former Reds ace, doesn't look the part of an SF Giants pitcher at all. The Giants love athleticism. They love guys that can do all the little things. It's why Mike Leake was so alluring. He could pitch decently, field his position like a Gold Glover, and could hit like Bumgarner. Cueto is somewhat of an enigma. He dominated with the Reds. But after he got traded to the Royals, he was relatively mediocre. His postseason was also up and down. And he's a big man. He's like Pablo Sandoval, except as a pitcher. He also had some question marks in regards to his health - mainly his arm. These are all red flags and they add up to a player that the Giants usually pass on. Except this time they didn't. They shelled out big money (and big risk) to sign the best remaining pitcher on the market. And he is indeed the Big Fish they wanted - he is a legitimate ace that they can pair with Bumgarner. It is entirely conceivable that Cueto will have his best years wearing a Giants uniform. That's saying something because this is a guy that had 4 consecutive seasons with an ERA below 3 in a hitter friendly park. But Cueto will only be 30 by the time Spring Training begins and he's moving to one of the pitcher friendliest ballparks there is. And he's going to a contender and will be supported by an offense that can score plenty of runs. The Giants looked around, saw this guy was available, and rolled the dice. They should be commended for doing so. When the offseason began, I thought Cueto was the least likely free agent to sign with SF. And now he's a Giant. Go figure.

Of course, it also comes with the risk of completely backfiring. Cueto could go down with an injury at any moment and the Giants would be on the hook for several years. But that can be said of any pitcher. Cueto has the shiny credentials the Giants want (including a World Series ring) and are betting big he'll stay healthy and productive. It also has the added benefit of pushing Samardzija down the depth chart to a #3 starter. All of a sudden, the Giants have a sturdy rotation with two aces, a guy with ace-like talent in Samardzija, and two former aces in Peavy an Cain. There's a whole lot of potential in the Giants rotation. There's also a chance they all underperform but it's hard to find a rotation in baseball that has as high a ceiling as San Francisco's current 5.

So the Giants fixed their biggest issue coming into the offseason. And then they added a cherry on top by signing Denard Span to a team friendly 3-year deal. Span for his career has mostly been a spectacular defender in centerfield and a bonafide leadoff hitter. He came to the Giants on a decent deal because he dealt with injuries this past season. After declining their option on Nori Aoki, the Giants needed someone that could bat leadoff in case Pagan stared being all Pagan-ish in 2016. They now have that guy. And given that Pagan will almost assuredly not be a Giant past the 2016 season, the Giants also got their new centerfielder for the next few seasons. Given the lack of decent centerfield options available in the near future, Span looks to be a great get. But as the theme of this offseason goes - it all comes down to health. If Span stays healthy, he is the dynamic leadoff hitter and centerfield defender the Giants needed. It also helps he can steal bases effectively. The Giants basically took Aoki, gave him defensive superpowers and a better eye at the plate. That's Denard Span.

Going into Spring Training, it's hard to see a visible weakness on the Giants. Their infield was already one of the best in baseball and they rewarded their key infielder with a monster extension before they even signed a free agent. Signing Brandon Crawford to a huge extension helped assure pitchers that their Gold Glove shortstop would be gobbling up ground balls for the next several seasons. They needed some outfield depth and they got it by signing Span. And they needed a lot of help in the rotation and they procured two solid starting pitchers. If the Giants can stay healthy (always a big if), they should be contending for the NL West title. It's hard for a Giants fan to ask for a better offseason than the one that was given to us by Baer, Sabean, and Evans.

Beware, NL West clubs. A #SharkCueto warning has been issued.

Offseason Grade: A