Should Brian Sabean be thinking big this winter?
You can expect the same narrative to play itself out once again in 2013. And probably 2014 as well. And 2015. And so on.
The NL West belongs to the Giants and Dodgers in much the same way that the AL East belonged to the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in the early-to-mid 2000s. They're clearly the top two contenders in the division, and it may be awhile before another club crashes the party.
The Giants are obviously the top dog. They just won the NL West for the second time in three years, with both postseason trips resulting in a World Series title. San Francisco is the envy of the rest of the league, never mind the rest of the NL West.
But the Dodgers are doing their very best to change that. They're throwing money around like Floyd Mayweather, Jr. at a Las Vegas sportsbook, and they've used their riches to accumulate a roster as star-studded as any in Major League Baseball. They've made it clear that they're not about to spare any expense in their pursuit of domination over the Giants and the rest of the baseball world.
If the pieces the Dodgers have acquired over the last few months come together the way they're hoping, they're going to be one of baseball's elite teams in 2013. They could easily supplant the Giants as the dominant force in the NL West.
Unless, of course, the Giants do something to answer all the big splashes the Dodgers have been making over the last few months. What if they make a big splash of their own?
That's kind of a tricky proposition. Let's discuss.
The Case for Why a Big Splash Isn't Needed
The Dodgers are likely to be heard from on more than one occasion this offseason, but the big moves they're banking on to translate into success in 2013 have already happened.
In July, the Dodgers took on Hanley Ramirez and the two-plus years remaining on his lucrative contract. In August, they took on Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and the roughly $250 million they had remaining on their deals.
In addition, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti acquired rental players like Shane Victorino, Joe Blanton, Randy Choate and Brandon League (who was recently re-signed to an absurd contract) to help aid the Dodgers down the stretch. In a span of a few weeks, he has basically built a super-team designed to appease his success-hungry bosses.
In retrospect, it's amazing to think just how different the Dodgers looked in the months after the trade deadline than they did in the months before the trade deadline.
It's equally amazing, however, that none of these moves made the Dodgers better than the Giants.
The Dodgers entered August with a record of 56-50, and they proceeded to post a record of just 14-14 in the 28 games that they played in August. Even after they made their big trade with the Boston Red Sox late in the month, they finished it by losing five out of six.
The Dodgers were only marginally better down the stretch, going 16-13 in September and October. It was clear by mid-September that they weren't going to catch the Giants, who were busy playing their best baseball of the season while their counterpart was busy just trying to be above-average.
What's significant is that the Giants didn't go on a tear down the stretch because they made like the Dodgers and acquired a bunch of big-name players in July and August. On the contrary, they were relatively quiet with the moves they made.
Giants GM Brian Sabean did make one big move at the trade deadline to respond in kind to all the big moves Colletti was making down in Los Angeles, acquiring Hunter Pence from the Philadelphia Phillies. Aside from that, though, he made smaller moves like trading for Marco Scutaro and picking Jose Mijares up off waivers.
The "less is more" approach worked wonders for the Giants. They went 18-11 in August despite losing leading hitter Melky Cabrera to a PED suspension late in the month, then finished off the season by going 20-10 in September and October.
The Giants made sure the Dodgers felt their wrath, sweeping them in a three-game series in Los Angeles in August and then taking two of three from them in San Francisco in early September. That series dominance all but locked up the NL West title for the Giants.
The point: Given all that transpired down the stretch in 2012, the Giants simply don't have many reasons to feel intimidated by the Dodgers. L.A. had the flashier roster, but San Francisco had the better team. If all goes well, this very same team will be returning in 2013 and much rejoicing will surely follow.
If I'm the Giants, what I'm thinking right now is that the Dodgers are the ones with catching up to do, not the other way around.
The Case for Why a Big Splash Is Needed
If you're a Giants fan, it's pretty easy to underestimate the Dodgers right now. Their big additions towards the end of the 2012 season did little to make them a better team, and it's not like they're going to blow this team up and put a better one in its place this winter.
As easy as it may be to underestimate the Dodgers, here's a hint: Don't.
In all likelihood, the Dodgers are not going to perform in 2013 like they were down the stretch in 2012. Talented teams have a way of winning ballgames, and the Dodgers are definitely talented.
At the very least, we know the Dodgers are going to pitch. They have one of baseball's very best aces in Clayton Kershaw, who followed up his Cy Young season in 2011 with a campaign that saw him go 14-9 with a 2.53 ERA and a 9.1 K/9. He'll be joined in the Dodgers' rotation by Josh Beckett, Chad Billingsley and Chris Capuano, with Aaron Harang and Ted Lilly in the mix for the fifth and final spot.
This is assuming, of course, that the Dodgers don't go out and sign a starting pitcher to bolster their rotation. There's actually a good chance that they will, and it's not hard to imagine them breaking the bank for Zack Greinke, Anibal Sanchez or even old friend Hiroki Kuroda.
The Dodgers' bullpen will also be a strong point in 2013. As ridiculous as his new contract is, Brandon League is a solid reliever who could be a major asset if he returns to the All-Star form he showed in 2011. Kenley Jansen has one of the nastiest cutters in all of baseball, and he used it to compile a 2.35 ERA in 65 appearances in 2012. Ronald Belisario also had another quality season in 2012, and he'll be joined by a couple more quality setup men if the Dodgers manage to re-sign Randy Choate and Jamey Wright.
The Dodgers were a huge disappointment offensively down the stretch in 2012, but it would be foolish for anyone to expect the same old story to be told again in 2013. Matt Kemp will be an MVP candidate if he stays healthy. Adrian Gonzalez had a solid season in 2012 even though he never looked right at the plate and he too could be an MVP candidate if he finds his stroke again. Hanley Ramirez and Andre Ethier will both put up solid numbers.
And don't sleep on Carl Crawford. He'll be healthy for the first time in a long time in 2013, and he may look more like he did in 2010 if he relaxes and plays ball. He never gave himself a chance to do that in Boston, and it didn't help that he was in the wrong ballpark and the wrong lineup.
If enough things go right for the Dodgers in 2013, anything and everything will be possible. They could be a 100-win team and the favorite to win it all when the dust clears.
This is what the Dodgers are hoping for, and it's what the Giants should be worried about. They have a couple very good excuses to take the Dodgers lightly, but taking them lightly is a mistake that they can't afford to make.
A healthy fear of the Dodgers isn't necessarily the only thing that could motivate the Giants to make a big move this winter. They know from what they went through in 2011 that all the extra baseball played in a championship season can take its toll the next season, and they may be looking to avoid the same fate in 2013. If so, bringing in some fresh legs and arms could only help.
So instead of being content to make minor moves this winter, perhaps it's in the Giants' interest to be a little bit more aggressive.
What Are Their Big-Splash Options?
This year's free-agent market isn't as bloated with big names as last year's market was, but there are at least a couple of big-name stars the Giants could make a play on if they want to show the Dodgers that two can play at the spending game.
With Melky Cabrera likely headed elsewhere as a free agent this winter, the Giants find themselves with a hole to fill in left field. Who better to fill it than Josh Hamilton?
It's hard to tell who the favorites for Hamilton are at this juncture, but one NL official indicated to ESPN's Buster Olney back in September that the Giants are a team to watch in the Hamilton sweepstakes.
Hamilton signing with the Giants may seem like a long shot—and it probably is—but perhaps my recent article on the possibility will convince you that the Giants signing Hamilton to a lucrative contract wouldn't be so crazy. They're in a better position to make a big free-agent signing now more than ever before, and they could use his immense power in their lineup.
The other option for the Giants would be to go cheap in left field (i.e. with Gregor Blanco) and expensive in center field. They could do that by letting Angel Pagan walk as a free agent and replacing him with Michael Bourn.
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reported way back in early July that the Giants were being viewed as a potential suitor for Bourn. This was well before Pagan finished the season on a hot stretch and thus put himself in a position to be re-signed, but it's still not that hard to picture Bourn in a Giants uniform.
Bourn is a fit for the Giants because he could step in and fill the leadoff role vacated by Pagan, and the Giants would also certainly benefit from his defense. Bourn has a well-deserved reputation of being one of the game's elite defensive center fielders, and he's coming off a year in which he led all major league center fielders in UZR, according to FanGraphs.
Pitching-wise, the Giants would seem to be pretty well set in their rotation with all five starters from the 2012 set to return in 2013. The only real concern is depth, but that's an issue Sabean can solve without dishing out an expensive contract or two.
The bullpen, however, could get a tune-up. One thing the Giants could do is return Sergio Romo to a setup role, which would put them in the market for a closer. If so, somebody like Rafael Soriano could be on their radar.
Even if the Giants don't go for Hamilton, Bourn, Soriano or any other high-priced free agent, Sabean could still make a pretty big splash this offseason by exploring possibilities on the trade market.
The Giants could be a fit for Ian Kinsler if the Texas Rangers decide to move him to make way for Jurickson Profar, and they could also be a fit for Michael Morse if the Washington Nationals re-sign Adam LaRoche. Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com has noted that Morse could be the odd man out if LaRoche is re-signed.
Any one of the aforementioned players would make the Giants a better team, and that's not a possibility that the Dodgers want to deal with. After all, a seemingly undermanned Giants team got the better of them in 2012. A much-improved Giants team could therefore be good enough to leave them in the dust in 2013.
Given the Circumstances, What's Their Best Play?
The Giants could make a big splash this winter, but all signs point towards them being content to tackle 2013 with the same guys who helped them win it all in 2012.
To this end, the Giants only have a couple loose ends to tie up. Their key free agents are Angel Pagan, Marco Scutaro and Jeremy Affeldt, and Andrew Baggarly of CSNBayArea.com has reported that the Giants are looking to bring all three of them back in 2013.
If Sabean does manage to bring all three of them back, his team will be pretty well set. He'll have quality starters locked in to all eight positions on the field, and he'll have both a strong starting rotation and bullpen.
The team the Giants are trying to return is the same one that went 20-10 in the last month of the season and then 11-5 in the postseason. Combine those two records together, and you get a 31-15 record that's good for a .674 winning percentage. Over a full season, a winning percentage like that would translate to a 110-win season.
That's probably not going to happen, but it's a pretty good indication of the potential upside of the 2013 Giants. Off the top of my head, I'd say a good over/under for the 2013 Giants if they retain their core free agents would be 95 wins.
A win total like that should be good enough to win the NL West in 2013. The only way it won't be is if the stars align for the Dodgers and they become the championship-caliber team they want to be.
Do the Giants need to make a big splash this winter to counter the Dodgers?
The Giants basically have two options this winter. They can gamble on a big-splash acquisition or two making them a better team than they already are, or they can stay relatively quiet and gamble on the Dodgers being a disappointment once again.
If I'm the Giants, I'm walking through door number two. I'm sticking to my guns and taking my chances.
Part of the reason I'm sticking to my guns if I'm the Giants is because they haven't exactly had good luck with their last two big-name acquisitions. Barry Zito played a huge role on the Giants this past season, but he hasn't come anywhere close to providing good value for his $126 million contract. Similarly, Aaron Rowand's $60 million contract never did pan out as being a good move.
Sabean knows better than most that blockbuster transactions have a way of not panning out. Smaller moves have worked out a lot better for him, including the couple he made to help the Giants win it all this year.
For example, trading for Pagan last offseason turned out to be a stroke of genius, as did Sabean's trade for Scutaro in July. And though he was cheating the whole time he was active in 2012, getting Melky Cabrera for Jonathan Sanchez was an absolute steal.
As such, one has to assume that Sabean isn't intimidated by what the Dodgers are doing. They're going to be a legit threat in 2013, but they'll have to prove that they're as good as the sum of their parts before they can be labeled as the team to beat in the NL West.
That's something that they couldn't do down the stretch in 2012, and no amount of money is going to force it to happen.
If the Giants proved anything with their last two championship seasons, it's that the better team always has a shot against the team with the better players. And right now, they're just a few small moves away from being in a position to prove the same thing all over again in 2013.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.