Barry Bonds

The case for Dexter Fowler

The Winter Meetings are full of mixed messages, and the Giants are sending quite a few.

The crop of free agent pitchers is still fairly strong, at least compared to the hodgepodge of dookie options that’ll hit the market a year from now, as Grant Brisbee explained. But do the Giants really want to drop a lot of money on Johnny Cueto, who reportedly turned down six years and $126 million from the D-Backs (hint: the answer is NO), or Mike Leake, who’s getting some nibbles from teams like the Nats, Giants and D-Backs, which means he’s probably asking for more money than he’s worth? In fact, Brian Sabean might have been thinking specifically about Leake when he said they’re not going to overpay.

But it doesn’t look like a trade for a starter is in the cards, unless things change. The D-Backs gave up a ridiculous set of players, including a solid major league outfieler in Ender Inciarte and the No. 1 pick in the 2015 amateur draft, for Shelby Miller. Miller has good stuff, but he’s the Jake Peavy to Jose Fernandez’s Madison Bumgarner, and a couple other trade targets were more or less shot down yesterday.

Danny Salazar and Julio Teheran aren’t the only pitchers out there, but it shows just how difficult it is to land a starter via trade. The Giants don’t have any “hot” prospects in the minors, although Christian Arroyo has the potential to become a pretty nice trade chip this year, and they have absolutely no interest in breaking up what they believe to be “one of the best infields in baseball.”

So do they make the obvious move and reach an agreement with Leake? Do they wait out the market and target another second/third-tier pitcher — like Ian Kennedy, Scott Kazmir, Yovani Gallardo, Wei-Yin Chen (linked to the Giants as of yesterday afternoon) or Doug Fister — who falls through the cracks? That’s all possible, perhaps even probable. A lot depends on what they think about Matt Cain. If they’re confident he can come back next year pitching close to as well he did in the first half of 2012, they might not feel the need to spend $14 million-plus per year on another starter. In that case, slow-playing the pitching market is the best move.

I’m also skeptical of Sabean’s claim — reiterated by Bobby Evans on KNBR yesterday afternoon — that they’re more concerned with adding a pitcher. If that were true, why did they offer at least $14 million annually to a guy they wanted to play left field (among other positions)?

Ben Zobrist, a versatile veteran who was one of the Nationals’ top free-agent targets, signed a four-year, $56-million deal with Chicago on Tuesday night despite slightly larger offers from Washington and San Francisco, a person familiar with the situation said.

It sounds like John Shea is thinking along those lines, as this morning he tweeted, “If Giants make a trade, lot more options for pitchers than hitters. Free agency probably supplies the hitter.”

The Giants don’t want to overpay, as Sabean noted. In a perfect world, they would’ve gotten Leake on a three-year, $35 million deal, but that’s not how the baseball world works. The value, relatively speaking, may be in these outfielders. As Jon Heyman noted, there are several. Which one makes sense?

Jason Heyward

PROS: Youngest guy on this list; his game (incredible defender with speed and enough power to keep pitchers honest) would play well at AT&T; good strikeout-to-walk ratio; played 51 innings in center field last season for St. Louis; signing him would confuse fans who still chant “POSEY’S BETTER” five years after the fact.

CONS: He’s going to get more money and years than any other free agent outfielder (like a 10-year, $200 million deal the Giants would never consider offering); qualifying offer.

Justin Upton

PROS: Seems like he’s been around forever, but he’s only 28; one of the most powerful hitters in baseball; stole 19 bases in 2015.

CONS: Definitely not a guy you’d want in center; probably going to get a huge offer from an American League team at some point over the next couple weeks (just speculating, but he seems like a perfect AL player); qualifying offer; signing him invariably means his brother Melvin will end up joining the team within a few months.

Yoenis Cespedes

PROS: Someone people will pay to see (or pay more, since Giants games are already sold out); massive power; wins seem to follow him wherever he goes; no qualifying offer attached; can play some center; more swagger than anyone in the world not named Draymond Green.

CONS: He’s going to be expensive; almost never walks; doesn’t exactly play center all that well (although he’s a more-than-serviceable corner outfielder).

Alex Gordon

PROS: Excellent defensive left fielder; averaged 6.1 WAR from 2011-14; might not require as many years as the previous three outfielders mentioned.

CONS: Turns 32 in February; has only played left field since moving away from third base after 2010; left-handed hitters need more power than Gordon possesses to thrive at AT&T; qualifying offer.

Denard Span

PROS: Can play center field and bat leadoff; doesn’t strike out much (which the Giants always seem to like); price should be fairly low due to injury concerns; no qualifying offer.

CONS: Injury concerns are very real (played only 61 games last year and averaged 112 games per season over last five years); same age as Gordon; speed and defense are guaranteed to deteriorate over the life of a multi-year contract; agent Scott Boras says there’s no way Span will take a one-year deal.

Dexter Fowler

PROS: Switch-hitter; plays center field (Fangraphs had him ranked between Mike Trout and Marcell Ozuna); 17 home runs and 20 steals last year; high OBP throughout his career; kind of flying under the radar as his former club and the Cardinals are reportedly competing for Jason Heyward.

CONS: Seemed to perform below expectations before 2015; never played more than 143 games in a season until 2015 (156); qualifying offer.


This is where we get to some questions only the Giants can answer.

1. Do they really want to keep Angel Pagan as their everyday CF and leadoff hitter?

That’s what they keep saying, but even in a contract year it seems crazy to trust Pagan to turn back the clock in his age-35 season. The Giants seem very hesitant to even bring up the possibility of moving Pagan to left field, either because they don’t want Pagan to check out mentally and/or cause a stir, or they simply don’t think he’d perform any better at a new position.

2. How much do they value outfield defense?

Based on the “defensive runs saved” metric, Pagan was the worst fielder in all of baseball last year with a horrid -20. Fowler was better, but not great (-12). Span was at -10, which is pretty impressive considering how few games he played. Cespedes came in at zero. Gordon was a +7 while missing 58 games, and Heyward ranked fourth overall at +24.

This isn’t the only stat worth a team’s attention, but every full-time member of the Giants’ infield scored a positive number in 2015, and Buster Posey led the entire team with +21 (Brandon Crawford was +20, and you can check out the rest of the scores here if you wish).

For what it’s worth, Fox’s Jon Morosi said the Giants prefer Gordon, Heyward and Fowler over Upton and Cespedes due to defense.

3. Do they think they can add a free agent starter AND outfielder?

If they have about $30 million (average annual value) to spend before they get too close to the luxury tax (they should leave a little wiggle room for midseason acquisitions in case of injuries), it seems possible to add a couple guys on five-year, $75 million deals … including Fowler. Perhaps. This seems kind of loopy, I’ll admit. The Giants generally have to overpay to get anyone to consider signing, especially hitters.

ESPN’s Jerry Crasnik mentioned Fowler as a possibility after the Giants lost out on Zobrist. Bobby Evans said he’s been in contact with “almost everyone on the outfield market” and rumors of a Gordon signing have been a lot louder than anything else coming out of the winter meetings in regard to a possible new outfielder for the Giants.

Then there’s the least exciting option: Gerardo Parra, the guy we should probably pencil in right now. He’s a corner outfielder who can play center in an emergency. The Giants have seen a lot of him since he used to play in the division. He’s going to be cheaper than every other outfielder mentioned in this story, because he followed up a tremendous 2013 season (6.1 WAR) with two meh years which saw him get dealt to Milwaukee and Baltimore in midseason trades, but he’s still only 28.

I don’t see the Giants signing Heyward, Cespedes or Upton due to price and other factors. Gordon is certainly a possibility, but he doesn’t solve their Pagan problem. Span is a dynamic player when healthy, but that’s how the Giants feel about Pagan. That’s why I’m politely suggesting the Giants should sign Fowler. He’s two years younger than Gordon, he allows the Giants to either force Pagan to a left field platoon with Gregor Blanco or trade Pagan, and he isn’t Parra.

As for the qualifying offer stuff, they already lost their first round pick in 2016 when they signed Jeff Samardzija. So they might as well sign another QO guy and lose their second round pick if he’s the best fit.

Also, Giants fans should check out this story from Peter Gammons about Fowler’s relationship with Barry Bonds. Great stuff on Bonds, and I had no idea Fowler almost attended Harvard.

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