Is In-Shape Pablo Sandoval Headed for Big Offensive Explosion in 2014?

Alex Espinoza@AlexEspinozaIVCorrespondent IIIJanuary 23, 2014

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By the end of his rookie year in 2008, Pablo Sandoval was known as "Kung Fu Panda." After making a slick play on the basepaths in a September ballgame, veteran pitcher Barry Zito coined the nickname and the rest is history.

The moniker fits the gregarious Sandoval well. He's got some great athleticism, but he's also been round like a panda bear at times throughout his career. It seems like Sandoval's waistline is always a topic of discussion, even in the offseason, and right now is no different.

The talented 27-year-old third baseman is entering a contract year, and after seeing all the dollars spent in free agency this winter he's primed for a nine-figure payday with a good season in 2014. In fact, he might even get that by spring training from the Giants.

During the winter meetings in December, Chris Haft of reported that San Francisco general manager Brian Sabean said the team was open to signing Sandoval to an extension before the regular season started.

Giants general manager Brian Sabean said Tuesday that he would consider offering Pablo Sandoval a contract extension as early as Spring Training if the third baseman reports to camp in decent physical condition.

Remaining in good shape has challenged Sandoval more than hitting a Clayton Kershaw curveball. Sandoval's weight has fluctuated during his five full seasons with the Giants, causing him to balloon as high as an estimated 280 pounds at one juncture.

So how has he been doing with his conditioning this offseason?

If you have seen his brother's Instagram account at any time in the past few months, it's littered with videos and photos showing Sandoval's winter workout regimen in Venezuela. For now, Sandoval is saying and doing all the right things.

The following video was shared by Sandoval's brother, Michael, along with a caption that reads, "Only one goal GOLD GLOVE."

All of the offseason work is apparently paying dividends. Recently, Rafael Rojas of reported that Sandoval lost 42 pounds, which would put him near 240 pounds, his listed size on the team's official website.

Shortly afterwards, Sandoval took to Twitter to clarify the claims, providing further insight that he is fully committed to this offseason transformation.

It's refreshing to see Sandoval have such a positive attitude after a career that has been plagued with question marks surrounding his commitment and fluctuating belt size. Even though he claims he hasn't lost 42 pounds, this recent shirtless photo shared by his brother shows that his body has come a long way since the end of the 2013 season.

It was the latest disappointing campaign in Sandoval's roller-coaster career that started as a late call-up in 2008. The next season, Sandoval burst on to the scene by hitting .330/.387/.556 with 25 homers, 90 RBI, 52 walks, 83 strikeouts and an OPS+ of 144.

But he followed that up with a subpar 2010 season. He was eventually supplanted by Juan Uribe as the team's primary third baseman in the World Series that year, as Sandoval appeared in just one contest in the five-game victory over the Texas Rangers.

Heading into 2011, Sandoval was in a very similar situation that he finds himself in now, shedding a lot of weight in an effort to recapture his form as one of the most potent hitters in the league. He was able to do that and then some, posting a career-high OPS+ of 155 in 2011 before regressing again due to weight and personal problems in 2012. 

Here's a look at Sandoval's up-and-down career so far.

Pablo Sandoval Career Stats

It's worth noting that even in his subpar seasons, Sandoval's OPS+ has never dipped below 99, giving an indication of his immense talent in the batter's box. If Sandoval was able to focus in 2011 and put together such a big season, one must think he'll be able to do it again in 2014.

With a month to go before spring training, Sandoval has already got a head start on his baseball activities.

He has recently been suiting up at third base for the Navegantes del Magallanes in his native Venezuela. After starting out 0-for-7 in his first two games with the club, he's starting to heat up. On Tuesday, he went 3-for-3 and helped Magallanes clinch a bid to Venezuela's Gran Final, the league's championship series.

In a recent TV interview, Sandoval said playing for Magallanes was the best way to get ready for spring training, joining other MLBers on the squad like Alberto Callaspo, Carlos Zambrano, Ramon Hernandez and Endy Chavez. He also appears to be in good shape judging by a game photo from Tuesday night, via Andrews Abreu of El Carabobeno.

If Sandoval keeps up this attitude and rakes early on in spring training, there's reason to believe the Giants will pay more than $100 million to keep him around.

The club has recently paid top dollar to re-sign its players before they hit free agency, including outfielder Hunter Pence (five years, $90 million) and pitcher Tim Lincecum (two years, $35 million) earlier this offseason. Using Pence's deal as a framework, Sandoval would be in line for a massive pay raise from his 2014 salary of $8.25 million.

Sandoval is three years younger than Pence, plays a more premium defensive position and is arguably the more talented player. Here's a comparison of the two players since Sandoval became a full-time MLB player in 2009.

Sandoval vs. Pence Yearly Averages Since 2009

Given San Francisco's recent spending habits on key pieces like Pence, Matt Cain and Buster Posey, Sandoval appears to have a good chance at becoming the team's next $100 million man.

If the Giants do sign Sandoval, though, will he lose the motivation to stay on top of his game? That will be a major issue for the front office to consider. Most of Sandoval's struggles in the batter's box have been mental, as he has a bad habit of chasing pitches out of the zone.

But if Sandoval is still a free agent when the season starts and auditioning for other teams, expect numbers close to the big figures he put up during the 2009 and 2011 campaigns. When his body and mind are in tune, Sandoval is one of baseball's most talented hitters. Despite his big belly by the end of last year, he could still make plays like this in the field, too.

Given his age and ability on both offense and defense, Sandoval would be a hot commodity on the open market. Or as one AL East scout eloquently told Haft"I don't care if [Sandoval] weighs 427 pounds. He'll hit at least 30 home runs in our park."

The New York Yankees need a long-term option at third base, right? I digress.

Sandoval is looking and sounding like a man who realizes that he has a huge opportunity to cash in this year. He's been here before with a new-look body and produced results, and it turned into a three-year, $17.15 million contract. As he nears free agency, he's worth exponentially more if he is in better shape. That should serve as plenty of motivation to get his body right.

It's just a matter of sustaining this dedication throughout the season, but from his recent comments and workouts, it seems Sandoval is ripe for a huge campaign in 2014.


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