The Giants need to upgrade their rotation with or without Tim Lincecum.
The San Francisco Giants enter the final day of the 2013 season with a record of 75-86. The Giants defense of their 2012 championship fell short in large part because of a starting rotation that enters play on Sunday with the game's seventh-worst ERA.
For the first time since 2008, the Giants will go into the winter with a losing record. From 2009-12, the club reeled off four-straight winning seasons and two championships. The Giants had the game's best ERA during that stretch.
The Giants are close to being set on offense going into 2014. They re-signed right fielder Hunter Pence to a massive, five-year, $90 million deal on Saturday (h/t Andrew Baggarly, CSN Bay Area).
That means the Giants are now locked in at seven of the eight positions for next season. In addition to Pence, Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, Marco Scutaro, Brandon Crawford, Pablo Sandoval and Angel Pagan are all under contract beyond this season.
The one position San Francisco needs to upgrade is left field. The Giants have received only four home runs and a .647 OPS from their left fielders this season, which ranks them last in baseball in both categories.
Upgrading in left field while also getting a healthy season from Pagan in center should be enough to improve an offense that currently ranks 22nd in runs and 19th in OPS.
Thus, the focus this winter needs to be on bolstering the rotation. With Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain returning to front the top of the rotation, the Giants are already part of the way to having one of the game's top staffs again.
After a rough first half, Cain posted a 2.36 ERA over 11 second-half starts to get back on track. Bumgarner had the best year of his career with a 2.77 ERA.
Retaining former Cy Young Award-winner Tim Lincecum is a key priority this winter. Slotting him back into the rotation behind Bumgarner and Cain would bolster the staff. However, that won't be enough to get the Giants back into the postseason.
To do that, they'll need to do more than re-sign Pence and Lincecum and call it a winter. If the Giants are going to overtake the Dodgers in the NL West in 2014, they need to be as aggressive in remaking their club as the Dodgers have been in recent years.
Will Lincecum be back in San Francisco?
The first order of business for the Giants this offseason is to re-sign Tim Lincecum. He's no longer the dominant ace he was from 2008-11 when he won two Cy Young Awards and pitched the Giants to a championship.
However, he's settled in as a solid mid-rotation starter after a disastrous 2012 campaign in which he posted a 5.18 ERA. Lincecum trimmed his ERA down to 4.37 in 2013, and there's reason to believe he can improve upon that.
His 3.73 FIP—an ERA estimator based on walk, strikeout and home run rates—was much better than his ERA. Lincecum also had the game's eighth-best swinging strike ratio. Thus, despite his diminished velocity, he still gets hitters to swing and miss at an elite rate.
It wouldn't be a surprise to see Lincecum post a better ERA in 2014 given his ability to strike batters out. He also showed improved control this year, lowering his walk rate by 2 percent. If that trend continues, Lincecum will be a big part of the solution for the Giants in 2014.
Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area reported that after retaining Pence, general manager Brian Sabean turned his focus to re-signing Lincecum and potentially signing Cuban slugger Jose Abreu. Lincecum is a fan-favorite in San Francisco, and the Giants are already working towards keeping him in the fold.
One way for the Giants to improve in left field would be to sign Jose Abreu to play first base and then move Brandon Belt to the outfield.
The Giants are reportedly scouting Abreu heavily, with Sabean on his way to get a firsthand look. The Giants could certainly use his power potential, as they are second-to-last in home runs.
Oakland Athletics assistant general manager David Forst told Grantland's Jonah Keri that in regards to Abreu, "there are legitimate comparisons to Ryan Howard." The Athletics had success scouting the Cuban market when they signed Yoenis Cespedes two years ago. The Dodgers appear to have hit the jackpot with Yasiel Puig.
Perhaps signing the slugging, 26-year-old Abreu would give the Giants a similar boost. The Giants need help in left field, but other than Shin-Soo Choo and Carlos Beltran, there doesn't appear to be much help on the market.
Signing Abreu and moving Belt to left field would be a creative way to upgrade the offense.
Shin-Soo Choo gets on base.
Instead of searching for power in left field, the Giants could go a different route. Since AT&T Park isn't conducive to power hitting, the Giants could look to bolster the lineup by adding an on-base machine.
Free-agent outfielder Shin-Soo Choo has a .424 on-base percentage this season, good for fourth best in baseball.
The Giants have Angel Pagan as their leadoff man, but he's not a prototypical solution. His lifetime .333 on-base percentage would fit in better towards the bottom of an ideal lineup. Choo's career .390 on-base percentage would be a huge upgrade at the top of the lineup.
It isn't as though Choo is a slap hitter. He's blasted 21 home runs this year while posting a .464 slugging percentage.
With the Giants setting the market by signing Pence for $90 million, Choo's price tag is going to be huge. Thus, it seems unlikely San Francisco will be able to make a run at signing the Scott Boras client. Since Choo is a better player than Pence by most metrics, he's likely going to command at least $100 million on the open market.
The Giants might not want to pay what it takes to acquire Choo. At the same time, Abreu won't be coming cheaply, either. If the Giants want to make up 17 games on the Dodgers in one winter, they're going to have to open their wallets.
Another season of a Gregor Blanco/Andres Torres in left field simply will not do. If the Giants can't sign Abreu or Choo, they'll have to find an outfield upgrade on the trade market.
Even if the Giants retain Lincecum, they'll still need to upgrade their starting rotation. The best option on that front might be 24-year-old Japanese right-hander Masahiro Tanaka.
Tanaka went 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA over 23 starts in Japan this year. He's gone 95-35 with a 2.32 ERA and 1,210 strikeouts over 1,284 innings during his professional career. For comparison, Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish went 93-38 with a 1.99 ERA and 1,250 strikeouts over 1,268 innings during his career in Japan.
According to Baggarly, the Giants sent top scout Pat Burrell to Japan to get a look at Tanaka:
Even Pat Burrell has a plane ticket to Tokyo as the Giants get as many eyes as possible on Masahiro Tanaka, the 24-year-old right-hander who throws in the upper 90s, dazzled for Japan in the World Baseball Classic and is expected to be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles in a few months...Tanaka...makes the most sense for the Giants, since he fits their pitching-and-defense philosophy and could bring a bevy of marketing opportunities as well.
Signing Tanaka would potentially give the Giants three aces at the top of the rotation along with Cain and Bumgarner. Re-signing Lincecum as a No. 4 starter would give the Giants one of the game's best rotations once again.
The difficulty in signing Tanaka will come down to the posting fee. The Rangers had to pay a $51.7 million posting fee to negotiate with Darvish. The posting fee, combined with his $56 million contract, made the deal worth more than a $100 million.
Then again, signing a guy who is 20-0 in Japan might be more than worth that kind of money. The Rangers are certainly getting outstanding value on the Darvish deal.
Signing Tanaka would be the big splash the Giants need to get back to their pitching-and-defense roots. The only question seems to be how much the Giants will bid for his services.
Ervin Santana could help the Giants rotation.
If the Giants aren't able to make a big splash on the international market, they'll have to turn their attention to upgrading the rotation via the domestic market.
Ervin Santana might be the best option in that regard. He's posted a 3.24 ERA over 32 starts with the Kansas City Royals this season. Santana is a strikeout/fly-ball pitcher who would fit in well pitching at the friendly confines of AT&T Park.
The 30-year-old righty has excellent stuff, including a fastball that averages 92.4 mph and one of the game's best sliders. He isn't an ace, but he'd fit in nicely behind Bumgarner and Cain in the San Francisco rotation.
A.J. Burnett misses bats at an elite rate.
A.J. Burnett has enjoyed his return to the National League, and he's a big reason why the Pirates are finally playing in October again. After posting a 5.15 ERA with the Yankees in 2011 yet, Burnett has gone 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA since being traded to the Pirates.
He has the ninth-best strikeout rate in baseball. Like Santana, he has excellent stuff. Burnett features a 92.5 mph fastball and an exceptional curveball.
Burnett is 36, so he might command a shorter, more affordable deal than Santana or Tanaka. If the Giants want a short-term upgrade to their rotation, they'd be hard-pressed to find a better alternative than Burnett.
Hiroki Kuroda has been a model of consistency.
Hiroki Kuroda is another free-agent starter who can help the Giants on a short-term contract. He made $15 million on a one-year deal with the Yankees last year, so he obviously won't come cheaply.
The 38-year-old Kuroda has been a model of consistency. His ERAs over the past four years are 3.39, 3.07, 3.32 and 3.31. There's no such thing as a bad one-year contract, particularly when you can pencil in a player with an ERA around 3.00 for 200 innings.
If the Giants can't find a long-term solution in the rotation, signing Kuroda to a big one-year deal would be a nice consolation prize.
Matt Garza is one of the top free-agent pitchers.
Matt Garza is another free-agent starter who offers some intrigue. He might have the best overall stuff of any starter on the market, with a fastball that averages over 93 mph.
On the other hand, Garza's results have not always matched his stuff. His 3.84 career ERA shows that he isn't a top-of-the-rotation arm, though he'll likely get paid like one on the open market.
Given that Garza has also battled injuries over the past two seasons, he might be the riskiest proposition on the market. The Giants have done an excellent job of avoiding pitchers with prior injury histories, so Garza doesn't appear to be a match.
However, if a strong market doesn't develop for him, a move to San Francisco isn't out of the realm of possibility. Garza could benefit from the tutelage of pitching coach Dave Righetti. Pitching at AT&T Park wouldn't hurt matters, either.
AT&T Park could save Phil Hughes' career.
Phil Hughes is a perfect match for the back of the San Francisco rotation. His 46.5 percent fly-ball rate is the fifth-highest in baseball.
Unfortunately, allowing fly-balls at Yankee Stadium is a terrible strategy. Yankee Stadium is one of the game's most hitter-friendly parks, while AT&T Park is where fly balls go to die.
A move to the weaker league and a spacious ballpark could do wonders for Hughes and his 5.19 ERA. He's only 27 years old, and he has excellent stuff including a low-90s fastball.
A move out of the American League and Yankee Stadium drastically helped Burnett. Francisco Liriano pitched like an ace this year for the Pirates after escaping the American League.
While Hughes' ERA is terrible, his fly-ball tendencies, control, youth and above-average stuff make him an excellent buy-low candidate for the Giants. His downfall has been allowing too many home runs. Pitching against weaker competition in a huge ballpark might help Hughes fulfill his potential as a former top prospect.
The Giants and pitching coach Dave Righetti resurrected Ryan Vogelsong's career in 2011. Perhaps they could do the same for Hughes in 2014.