For the last couple years since the departure of Barry Bonds, the San Francisco Giants have been pressured and prodded in the direction of a power-hitting corner infielder. Many names have been heard on the rumor mill, including Joe Crede, Paul Konerko, Austin Kearns, Nick Johnson, and Prince Fielder.
But in the last couple years, the emergence of the Giants farm system has changed the outlook on homegrown position players. Pablo Sandoval has done that almost single-handedly, and at 23 years old, looks to be a part of the San Francisco franchise for a solid chunk of the immediate future.
There is a question mark at first base, but Travis Ishikawa put together a very underappreciated season, hitting a solid .261 with nine homeruns while playing arguably the best defensive first base in the league.
With Sandoval still under team control, the steadiness of Ishikawa, and now the introduction of Ryan Garko to the mix, the corner spots looked to be locked down for the time being.
Travis Ishikawa, 1 year/$0.401M (2009)
At the beginning of the season, Ishikawa was hailed by some to be the second coming of Will Clark. His defense was impeccable, and he led the majors in homeruns in Spring Training. On Opening Day he hit a bases clearing triple into the alleyway that seemed to solidify that fact.
I, along with a few other writers and some big Will Clark fans, did not see Ishikawa as taking over where Clark left off, but saw him more in the mold of another Giant favorite J.T. Snow. He’s among the league leaders in fielding, and has the makings of a possible Gold Glover, and is passable at the plate.
His swing does have holes, but after a terrible streak that brought his average down near .220, he has since raised it to a respectable .261. The Giants’ streak of over 40 games without a homerun from the first-base position was a sore spot early on, but Ishikawa ended the year with nine homers and big fly potential.
He’s also, far and away, the best defensive first baseman in the majors. The UZR is a relatively new statistic, but it’s basically the “zone rating” that measures the defensive impact of a player. Take this with a grain of salt, as Ishikawa does not qualify due to an insufficient number of appearances.
The highest UZR rating is attributed to Ishikawa, reeling in a 10.8 UZR. The second highest is Casey Kotchman, who brings a 5.2 UZR to the table. That’s more than twice as much as the next best defender. It’s certainly something to look at.
The biggest problem for Ishikawa was hitting away from AT&T Park. Long known as a pure pitcher’s park, Ishikawa hit an outstanding .349 at home, slugging 7 of his 9 homeruns and locking up a .935 OPS. In contrast, his .162 road average was not good, in any sense of the word. He only hit five extra base hits away from San Francisco.
Ishikawa is still under team control, and should be in the running for the starting job in 2010, depending on what they end up doing with Ryan Garko. Personally, I think he has what it takes to be a starting first baseman. If he work out the kinks in his swing, his defense is already good enough that it should keep him in the lineup.
Ryan Garko, 1 year/$0.4461M (2009)
Garko was a solid pickup by the Giants, in terms of his career numbers. He was a typical Brian Sabean trade deadline acquisition. No one saw it coming, but after a second of letting it sink in, it kind of made sense.
Yet after his pickup, he never really lived up to his previous years. His line with the Giants was disappointing. His .282 average and 10-15 homerun power over three years with the Indians vanished with the move to the National League, and Garko hit .235 with only six extra-base hits in 40 games in San Francisco. Granted, after a slow start he sank way down on Bruce Bochy’s playing time ladder and never really impressed enough to pull himself back up.
With all the speculation on which free agents the Giants will go after, and with Ishikawa as a solid starting option, not just a serviceable backup, Garko looks like the odd man out. The cards do not fall in his favor, with Sandoval having the ability to play both corners. Garko is a good player, but will most likely be non-tendered by the San Francisco front office.
Pablo Sandoval, 1 year/$0.40175M (2009)
Pablo Sandoval has reignited a sluggish Giants offense just like Tim Lincecum reignited the pitching staff in 2007. When he was called up late 2008 he immediately impressed, if only for half a season. In 2009, he followed it up with a season spent contending for the batting title, playing amazing defense, given his size, and leading the Giants offense in almost every category the whole year.
His .330 batting average, 25 homeruns, 90 RBI, 79 R, 189 hits, 44 doubles, and .943 OPS all led the team. And for all of his free-swinging tendencies, he also led the team with 52 walks. To put the Giants’ swing-first mentality in perspective, the team’s leading walker was ranked fifty-first in the National League, and had less than half of Adrian Gonzalez’s 119.
Looking forward to 2010, Sandoval has already (reportedly) lost 12 pounds and is continuing a rigorous fitness regiment throughout the whole off-season. A slimmer Sandoval is still under team control for another two years, and will be the centerpiece for the offense of this team, along with Buster Posey, whenever he’s ready.
What the Giants have to figure out is where Sandoval is going to play. If they can pick up a power hitting first-baseman like Nick Johnson or even experiment with Jermaine Dye at first, then Sandoval will stay at third. If they resign Juan Uribe as a third-baseman, or sign someone else like Adrian Beltre or trade for someone like Mat Gamel, then Sandoval might move to first.
Either way, he will continue to improve into one of the best young hitters in the majors, and will be competing for the MVP in the next five years.
Juan Uribe, 1 year/$1.00M (2009)
Uribe was another one of Brian Sabean’s under-the-radar, low profile minor league signings that paid off drastically (see Brandon Medders and Justin Miller). Once Uribe got steady playing time with injuries to Sandoval and much more high-profile Edgar Renteria, he quickly became one of the hottest hitters in the National League.
He was brought in as a utility infielder, capable of playing everywhere except first on the infield, but claimed that he wanted to start. Given the chance from late July on, Uribe hit .299 with 12 HR and 33 RBI. He hit .325 in September, and was easily the biggest offensive weapon, not named Panda, in the San Francisco line-up.
The fact that the Giants got him on the (super) cheap almost hurts them this year. His productivity earned him a big raise, and he chose to let his momentum from the end of the season carry him out on the open market. The Giants have expressed interest, but there are a lot of teams that have more flexibility to make this kind of a move.
In my opinion, and those of a couple other writers with Giants on the mind, resigning Uribe and Brad Penny is just important as adding a big bat. His demeanor in the clubhouse is great, his pop is much appreciated, and his defense is above average. He’s the best option at third base, or even second base if the brass decides to move Freddy Sanchez over or get rid of Renteria.
Fate of the Franchise
The Giants will have at least Ishikawa and Sandoval under contract next year. I’d like to see Uribe back in a Giants uniform, and all of the prospective free agents the San Francisco are on the corner infielders.
Jermaine Dye is not a first baseman, and signing him as such might improve the offense, but those runs will be lost in the field. Carlos Delgado wasn't offered arbitration, so signing him wouldn't cost the Giants a draft pick. But, with his history, I wouldn't pay $10M+ for a multi-year deal if it would just sit on the disabled list.
Nick Johnson would definitely help the Giants put someone on base, which is never a bad thing. They have also been linked to Miguel Tejada, who would most likely be inserted at third base, moving Sandoval to first.
All of those options, however, relegate Ishikawa to a platoon role at most. His development over the last two seasons has been more than enough to convince me to let him start, and if he can fix his road woes to even remotely match his home numbers, he could become a great all-around player.
But the Giants need to add offense, and with the shortage of outfield options, a corner infield spot seems the best place to do it. Look for a splash signing on either corner, or maybe a sly little Sabean roster move to make things shake out.
Make sure to keep an eye out for the Fate of the Franchise minor league profile coming soon from Community Leader and Featured Columnist Danny Penza.