When the San Francisco Giants welcomed Pablo Sandoval back to the Bay Area in July 2017, he was a shell of his former self. A bust. Seemingly broken from his ill-fated days with the Boston Red Sox.
Roughly two years later, he's been reborn as a key offensive cog and a valuable trade piece for the last-place Giants.
Before we get into that, let's recount Sandoval's roller-coaster career. After he hit .345 during a 41-game audition with San Francisco in 2008, he hit 25 home runs with a .943 OPS in 2009 and finished seventh in National League MVP voting.
His numbers dipped in 2010 (.268 average, .732 OPS) amid questions about his weight and conditioning, and he played a limited role in the first of the Giants' three even-year title runs.
He rebounded in 2011 with 23 homers and a .909 OPS. In 2012, his OPS dipped to .789, but he hit .500 in the World Series and launched three home runs in a single game, including two off then-Detroit Tigers ace Justin Verlander.
In 2014, he again raked in the postseason with a .400 average in the National League Championship Series and .429 average in the Fall Classic.
That offseason, with three rings on his fingers, he spurned the Orange and Black and signed a five-year, $95 million deal with Boston.
Then, the bottom fell out.
Sandoval slashed .245/.292/.366 in 2015. In 2016, he showed up to spring training overweight and embarrassingly busted his belt on a swing in April. After appearing in only three games, he was sidelined by a shoulder injury that required surgery and ended his season.
He returned with the Sox in 2017. But after he hit .212 in 32 games, Boston cut him loose and ate the remaining $48.6 million on his contract.
That's when the Giants signed him to a minor league pact. In 47 games with San Francisco, Sandoval hit only .225, though he swatted five home runs and tallied 20 RBI.
Considering the Red Sox were paying his tab (minus the league minimum) and given the nostalgic goodwill San Francisco fans had for the Panda, the Giants kept him around.
Last season, he hit nine homers with a .727 OPS in 92 games. He'd been reduced to a utility role but authored arguably the most memorable moment in an 89-loss Giants season when he pitched a one-two-three ninth inning in a 15-6 loss to the archrival Los Angeles Dodgers:
He's logged 176 innings at third base with two defensive runs saved (DRS) and 104 innings at first base with one DRS. Not Gold Glove-caliber, but decent.
Then there's his noted role as lighthearted clubhouse Energizer Bunny. The player who keeps it going.
"He's a great guy in here for us," said Giants catcher Stephen Vogt, per Scott Ostler of the San Francisco Chronicle. "... When he comes to the plate, everybody gets to the top step, to the rail, you're expecting him to hit the ball out of the park."
Soon, he might be hitting it out for a contender. The Giants are lurching toward an overdue rebuild. And, along with closer Will Smith and left-hander Madison Bumgarner, Sandoval is one of their most flippable pieces.
He's got a $5 million club option after this season. But with the Red Sox paying most of the bill, what club wouldn't offer a couple of high-upside prospects to have his bat, unflappable spirit and playoff pedigree on its roster?
Sandoval would make the most sense for an American League team that could slot him at third base, first base or designated hitter (and sneaky relief pitcher). But there is virtually no club with postseason aspirations that wouldn't benefit from his services.
According to Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area, the Giants plan to be sellers prior to the July 31 deadline and have gotten calls about Sandoval. But he added there are concerns about losing the fanbase's interest and Sandoval's connection to outgoing manager Bruce Bochy.
Nostalgia aside, however, San Francisco needs to look toward the future.
Going forward, Sandoval's up-and-down conditioning and output will be an issue for anyone who wants to sign him for next season and beyond. At age 32, there's no guarantee his renaissance will last.
Yet, he's shown rebirths are possible. And he might be hitting his way off the only MLB franchise for whom he's ever been a hit.