SF Giants: Affeldt, Lopez Returning a Trick or Treat? 4 Implications
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
The San Francisco Giants haven't wasted time beginning reconstruction of their 2012 major league roster.
Reports Sunday indicated that relief pitchers Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt will return to the Giants in 2012. The club reportedly exercised its $5 million option on Affeldt and signed Lopez for two years, $8.5 million.
Superficially, the return of two dependable lefties—both key contributors to the 2010 World Series run—seems like an early treat for Giants fans; a small bite of sweetness after a disappointing 2011.
Or is it more a trick destined to frustrate fans hoping to see the club acquire a big bat?
GM Brian Sabean had hinted the club would exercise its option on Affeldt. But he'd been mum about the 34-year-old Lopez, an attractive free agent after two solid seasons in San Francisco.
Even with a salary budget expected to rise to $124 million next season, money figures to be relatively tight; Extending Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum and boosting an anemic offense require hard, cold cash.
The first dominoes have fallen. What's next? Here are four plausible scenarios.
More Torture Ahead?
Affeldt and Lopez form a tough lefty tandem
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
Sabean's decision to keep Affeldt and Lopez implies that lots of tight, low-scoring games await next season.
Giants baseball: the torture continues.
For all the woes that befell San Francisco in 2011, it would have been far worse without a deep, multi-dimensional bullpen that helped keep the NL's lowest-scoring team in first place for four months and in contention until the season's final days.
No other pen in baseball featured four righties (Guillermo Mota, Santiago Casilla, Ramon Ramirez and Sergio Romo) and two lefties (Affeldt and Lopez), all with late-inning shut-down stuff.
With a legitimate offense, such depth would be a luxury. (The Texas Rangers, with this bullpen, are World Series champs).
On a run-starved club (like the 2011 Giants), it's a necessity.
Sabean may be doubling-down on bullpen depth because he realizes that runs may again be in short supply.
So Long, Mota?
Mota, Casilla and Ramirez are all due for pay hikes
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Tim Dierkes of mlbtraderumors.com projects 2012 salary bumps for Santiago Casilla, Ramon Ramirez and Sergio Romo (all through arbitration) to an aggregate $5.5 million—a $2 million increase over 2011.
Added to the $4.25 million for Lopez in the first year of his new two-year deal and a $2 million raise for Brian Wilson (from $6.5 to $8.5 million), that's $8.25 million in "new" money for relief pitching.
That leaves 37-year-old Guillermo Mota, a free agent after two solid multi-purpose years in San Francisco.
Losing Mota wouldn't seem to be too big a deal—until you examine his subtle contributions and the still-uncertain status of the fifth spot in San Francisco's rotation.
Mota is a bit of a physical wonder: strong (still throwing 93-95 MPH heat), durable (80.1 innings pitched, highest among Giant relievers and his busiest season since 2004) and adaptable (effective in long, middle and late inning relief).
At $925,000 last season, Mota was a genuine bargain (he was earning $3.2 million as recently as 2008, in Milwaukee). Even at his age, Mota's solid, durable 2011 campaign should make him an attractive free agent target.
Neither Steve Edlefsen nor Waldis Joaquin impressed during their brief September call-ups; Mota's departure would leave a (small, yet real) hole needing to be filled.
Question is, will the Giants ante up to keep him?
A Big Bat? Probably Not
A bat like Beltran seems out of the Giants' range
Ralph Freso/Getty Images
Henry Schulman of the San Francisco Chronicle suggested Monday that the Affeldt and Lopez moves support the notion that big-name, big-budget free agent hitters like Prince Fielder aren't part of the Giants' plans.
If true, the 2012 roster may resemble 2011's, with nominal exceptions. That's the scenario I imagined last week: with Affeldt, but without Lopez.
Offensively, my projected roster contemplated improvement from returnees and very limited help via free agency.
That didn't exactly excite many readers who believe a power bat is a necessary part of next year's lineup.
WIshful thinking aside, the budget numbers—even before the deals for Lopez and Affeldt—made a Fielder, Albert Pujols or even Carlos Beltran in black-and-orange a seeming pipe-dream.
Dierkes' guess at the Giants' 2012 budget roster—including sunk costs for existing multi-year contracts and retaining seven of their eleven arbitration-eligibles—added up to just over $100 million.
Add $4.25 million for Lopez, a couple million for young, pre-arbitration players like Buster Posey, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford, and filling out the roster with low-cost, one-year deals (think Pat Burrell in 2011) and you're at $110 million, maybe a bit more.
If the $124 million number tossed around by Sabean last month is still credible, that leaves no more than $10-$15 million in 2012 dollars for improving the offense.
That doesn't buy the mega-hitter fans pine for—unless other unanticipated moves shedding existing salary obligations are in the offing. Read on for a theory about that.
The Big Trick? Maybe
Might Sabean take advantage of his bullpen depth to free up salary room for a big hitter?
Tony Medina/Getty Images
Imagine that 2012 is effectively a re-run of 2011: terrific pitching, laggard offense, lots of 2-1, 3-2 games and, plausibly, another second-place finish.
Satisfactory? Didn't think so.
Brian Sabean faces a singular philosophical choice.
Does he preserve, at all costs, pitching—the club's unquestioned core strength and sole source of depth—or sacrifice a bit of that in order to address offensive deficiencies?
Taking the latter course will require a somewhat bold move, bolder than allowing an inexpensive second-tier reliever like Mota to leave.
Here's a bold move: Trade closer Brian Wilson for a mixture of prospects and cash that can be used to sign a big bat, or package him with Nate Schierholtz for a big bat/corner outfielder.
Rationale No. 1: The bullpen is deep enough to absorb Wilson's departure (Romo or Casilla could ably step in now; prospect Heath Hembree is a plausible successor by 2013 or 2014. Mota or rookie Steve Edlefsen could take the vacant bullpen spot.)
Rationale No. 2: The bullpen is the club's only source of valuable, marketable trade bait sufficient to attract an offensive difference-maker. (This assumes no willingness on the Giants' part to trade a starter...seems unimaginable to me.)
Assuming Wilson's elbow issues were nothing more than a minor, temporary setback, there are numerous clubs that could see the 29-year-old as a big "get."
For instance: The Yankees have to be imagining life without 41-year-old Mariano Rivera. They easily could absorb all or most of his $8.5 million 2012 salary obligation.
ESPN's Buster Olney, among others, has speculated that the Tampa Bay Rays could deal B.J. Upton this winter. His 2012 salary, still to be determined by arbitration, is likely to be in the $6 million range.
The Ray's closer, Kyle Farnsworth, is 35. He had a so-so 2011. Might they deal Upton, who fits the corner outfielder/run producer profile San Francisco lacks, for a younger replacement?