The Giants can't figure out free agency. The problem predates Brian Sabean. It's older than AT&T Park. To their credit, the Giants have built adequate rosters through trades and the draft. But when it comes to playing the free agent market, something isn't clicking.
Like all MLB teams, the Giants have been signing free agents under the current system for 35 years. Nevertheless, the first names off the tongue are still disappointments like Zito, Rowand and Alfonzo, while lesser names like Tucker, Sanders and Finley help make up a Giant fan's share of nightmares.
There had to be some good ones, right? Didn't Willie McGee have some good years? Possibly. And Marquis Grissom ran down some fly balls in his day. Yeah, I guess.
Reality: Free Agency has been a house of horrors for the Giants.
Let's celebrate the signing season by looking back at the best free agent signings in team history. I originally planned to make a list of the Giants Top 10 free agent signings, but that would recall from a dark place names like Glenallen Hill and Stan Javier. Nobody wants that. So let's stick with five. I suppose this list could easily be called: "Five Free Agent Pleasant Surprises."
I only include for consideration those players who signed with the Giants from another team. Players who re-signed do not count. Here are some players that didn't totally bomb after coming to San Francisco via free agency.
Some pitchers dazzle with high 90's fastballs and 12-to-6 curves. Others give fans the impression that they could get off the couch and get a hit in the big leagues. Fans describe this latter type of pitcher as "crafty, cerebral, a real workhorse." Mark Gardner was such a pitcher.
Granted, "Gardy" never blew away the competition. But from 1996 to 2001, Gardner always seemed to be in the mix. He was the opening day starter in 1997 and 1999. He was also given the ball in two of the Giants biggest games of that era: A 1998 one-game playoff against the Cubs and Game 4 of the 2000 NLDS—both crushing losses.
Every team needs a back of the rotation and Mark Gardner held up the Giants' just fine. In fact, Gardner's Giants career closely resembles that of another free agent pitcher signed by the Giants in 2006. Here are Gardner's numbers in his first five years in San Francisco compared with that other left-handed pitcher who shall remain nameless:
|Mark Gardner||53-40||4.64||1.35||2.19||$7.3 mil.|
|Pitcher Z||43-61||4.55||1.40||1.57||$78 mil.|
However, you feel about Gardy, I dare anyone to challenge this assertion: Mark Gardner is the best free agent pitcher signing in San Francisco Giants history. Let's move on. Please.
The 2007 Giants' two best hitters sharing a moment
From 1986-2008, the Giants primarily employed three second basemen: Robby Thompson, Jeff Kent, and Ray Durham. While Durham was probably the worst of the three, he was more than adequate during a Giants era where offensive inadequacy was the norm.
When Durham was signed in 2003, the Giants did not need another Jeff Kent. That team won 100 games with a solid top-to-bottom lineup that included Barry Bonds, Jose Cruz Jr., Marquis Grissom, and Andres Gaalarraga. Durham contributed a .285 average with 30 doubles and got on base in front of the big bats, just like he was supposed to do.
Over the next five years, the Giants swung and missed on just about every attempt to improve the lineup. The hitting deteriorated to the point that, by 2008, Durham was the best offensive threat in the opening day lineup. Ray Durham as the best offensive anything is a scenario no teams wants.
Ray Durham was never suited to carry guys like Jose Castillo, Ryan Klesko, and Kevin Frandsen. Durham's average season as a Giant was .276, 15 HR, and 31 2B. He was signed to be a piece of the championship puzzle. It's not his fault the front office dropped all the other pieces behind the couch.
Durham was a free agent signing that fulfilled expectations in San Francisco, something Giants fans have learned to not take for granted.
This only cost $3 million for one year?
The 2011 Aubrey Huff was not a great signing. The 2010 Aubrey Huff, however, turned out to be a pretty good idea. A worn out, over-the-hill veteran first baseman coming off the worst year of his career? Sounds like a perfect fit for the Giants. Huff turned out to be a more than pleasant surprise, putting up numbers not seen by a Giants first baseman since Will Clark.
.296 avg. .386 OBP., 26 HR 86 RBI, One World Championship.
Huff was the No. 3 hitter on a World Series Champion. And the Giants signed him off the free agent market. It was a blind squirrel moment. And more than enough to get him on this list.
Brett Butler got all kinds of Dodger stink on him later in his career. However, for three years, he was the best leadoff hitter the Giants have ever had.
Between 1988 and 1990, Butler averaged 106 runs, 174 hits, and 42 stolen bases. He played center field for the Giants 1989 NL Pennant winning squad and was the perfect scrappy table setter for a lineup anchored by Will Clark, Kevin Mitchell, and Matt Williams. Butler was also one of the best bunters in the game throughout his career.
Butler also owns a distinction rarely seen in a Giants free agent signing: When his contract was up, another team actually signed him for more money.
What a free agent signing is supposed to look like
The one signing to rule them all. After the 1992 season, the Giants gave Barry Bonds a six-year $43.75 million contract, at that time the biggest ever. This list could have included just one person. The Bonds signing was bigger every other Giants free agent acquisition combined.
There's little that hasn't already been said about Barry. At the time of his signing, the Giants were struggling with attendance and on the brink of moving to baseball purgatory in St. Petersburg. Bonds made the Giants relevant—and sometimes controversial—for the next 15 years, and provided coming-of-age Giants fans with some of their most exciting moments.
The Giants have never attracted a player close to Bonds' caliber since then. Is 2011 the year?