Fixing the Worst Outfield in Baseball

The San Francisco Giants are at a crossroads. With tons of payroll wrapped up in an aging core and a lackluster farm system, they check all the boxes of a team that should strongly consider a rebuild. However, the Giants have shown no signs of admitting this and are hellbent on mortgaging their future for another chance to contend in 2018. This desire to extend the glory days of yesteryear will likely just delay and lengthen an inevitable rebuild, this is the path they are taking. Thus, this article is not about what the Giants should do (rebuild), but rather what they can do to contend giving this ill-advised course of action. This article, in particular, will focus on the Giants most glaring offseason need: revamping an inept and broken outfield.

First and foremost, the Giants are financially handicapped as they currently have 153.9 million dollars committed in 2018 contracts, the highest mark in baseball. With the luxury tax for the upcoming season set at 195 million for the upcoming season, the Giants have roughly 42 million dollars to spend, and that’s before accounting for a number of players who are set to receive raises through the arbitration process in February. With five arbitration-eligible players (Joe Panik, Sam Dyson, Will Smith, Cory Gearrin, and Hunter Strickland) expected to receive roughly 7.0 million dollars in arbitration, the Giants payroll sits at about 161 million dollars. The Giants exceeded the luxury tax limit last year, and with steeper financial penalties for repeat offenders, we can expect the Giants front office to view the 195 million dollar limit as a hard cap when negotiating deals with free agents this offseason.

With a maximum of 34 million dollars of annual contracts to dole out, the Giants have a plethora of holes that still need to be filled if they stand any chance of contending in the suddenly stacked National League West. Below I will discuss some potentially cost-effective free agent signings or trades that the club could make to address their most pressing needs.

The most glaring hole the Giants will need to fill the barren wasteland that is their outfield. Aside from Hunter Pence, who is coming off a career-worst year in which he posted a career-worst wRC+ of 87 and declined defensively according to both UZR/150 and DRS, the Giants options in the outfield are bleak at best. As of today, December 28th, the Giants options for centerfield and left field are Gorkys Hernandez, Jarrett Parker, and Mac Williamson (these three quadruple-A fringe players combined for 0.5 WAR last season in 217 games). Collectively, the Giants outfield unit not only posted the worst offensive output last season with an 82 wRC+, they also ranked 27th or worst in the league in every defensive metric (Denard Span’s MLB worst -27 runs saved did not help this cause).  

It goes without saying that a unit that combined meager offensive output with subpar defensive skills is a recipe for disaster for any team that hopes to contend, which is why the top priority for the front office should be to patch up what was the MLB’s worst outfield in 2017.

Due to the spacious confines of AT&T Park, the Giants must search for outfielders who are not only capable of bringing some much-needed thump to a lineup that ranked dead-last in home runs a year ago but can also defend enough to bolster the Giants run prevention. Player’s that possess both these skills are rare, especially given the financial constraints that the club is under, but there are a few candidates that fit the bill without forcing the Giants to break the bank.

Finding A Corner Outfielder:

The first player the Giants should consider signing is Jay Bruce to play left field. As a left-handed hitter moving to AT&T Park, fans shouldn’t expect him to approach the 36 home runs that he hit last season, but adding a veteran bat that can be slotted in after Posey and Longoria could give the Giants a much more feared middle of the order. Advanced fielding metrics are surprisingly favorable to Bruce as the perceived-to-be slow-footed outfielder had 6 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) last season and ranked above league average in UZR/150. Bruce would also get to play left field at AT&T Park, which is a much easier to ask than trying to navigate triples alley on the other side of the outfield.

While Bruce fits on paper, how much would an All-Star caliber outfielder like Bruce cost? According to MLBtraderumors projections, Bruce should receive in the ballpark of a 3 year, 39 million dollar deal, but given the recent trend of teams waiting out corner outfielder / first base type sluggers to suppress their bargaining power, it is reasonable to expect Bruce to cost roughly 12 million AAV over the next three years (3 years, 36 million). Signing Bruce would give the Giants a reliable option in left field, with roughly  21-22 million left to address other needs.

Finding a Center Fielder Through Free Agency:

With both corner outfield spots locked down for the upcoming season, the Giants could then shift their focus to an elite defender in centerfield that could alleviate some of the defensive responsibilities of Pence and Bruce. Giants center fielders ranked dead last defensively last season, which is especially of concern in a ballpark with so much space to cover. Fortunately for the Giants, there are numerous options available, both via trade and free agency.

In the free agent market, the Giants could look towards someone like Jarrod Dyson. Estimated to earn in the neighborhood of 6 million per year, Dyson could bring much-needed athleticism and defensive ability to an otherwise lead-footed outfield unit. In the last three seasons, Dyson ranks 5th in the MLB with 25 DRS and is accustomed to large outfields, having spent the majority of his career in Kansas City. The concern with Dyson is his age. Dyson just turned 33 and given the strong correlation between age and declining defensive performance, signing Dyson would be based on the expectation that Dyson keeps his legs, at least for the next two seasons.

A less fleet-footed albeit capable alternative to Dyson that is available through free agency is the Cubs former leadoff hitter Jon Jay. While he doesn’t possess the same top line speed as Dyson, he gives the Giants a leadoff hitter with plus on-base skills (.374 OBP in 2017) and ranks out decently well according to UZR/150. Jay would come at a slightly higher cost than Dyson (roughly 2 years, 14 million), but could emerge as a stabilizing force in the Giants outfield.

Finding a Center Fielder Through Trade:

If the Giants decide to acquire a defense-first centerfielder via trade, there are also several candidates that fit this mold. The most obvious and publicly speculated match is the Reds ultra-speedster Billy Hamilton. Evidenced by his highlight reel grabs and gaudy stolen base numbers, Hamilton’s footspeed is unparalleled in the MLB. Since entering the league, Hamilton has ranked in the top 3 in baseball in DRS, UZR, UZR/150, RngR (Range Runs), and practically any statistic that is predicated on speed. I can already see the highlight reel grabs that Hamilton would make if he traded the bandbox of the Great American Ballpark for the vast outfield grass of AT&T Park. It would be a match made in heaven.

Unfortunately, some things are too good to be true as the Reds high asking price for their generational speedster has been extremely steep. Having already unloaded their top prospect to acquire Evan Longoria, the Giants should be hesitant to further depleting an already weak farm system. The counter-argument is that if the Giants are so hellbent on competing before their competitive window completely closes, then they might as well go all out and meet the Reds asking price (as long as the deal doesn’t involve 2017 1st round pick Heliot Ramos). Also worth noting is the financial considerations tied to Hamilton. Going into his second year of arbitration, Hamilton will likely get a raise to put his 2018 salary in the range of 4.5 million. All considered this is a small price to pay for a generational defender.

A cheaper alternative for Hamilton could be Juan Lagares of the Mets. Like Hamilton, Lagares would have to be acquired via trade, but his asking price would be much lower and his defensive prowess is also elite. A former gold glove winner, Lagares has battled the injury bug and leaves much to be desired with the bat, but at the right price, he could slot in nicely as the Giants center fielder. An important differentiator for Lagares is the fact that he bats right-handed. Not only have all the other outfield candidates been left-handed, but if the Giants did opt to sign Jay Bruce to play left field, their lineup would regularly trot out Brandon Belt, Joe Panik, Brandon Crawford, and Jay Bruce. With all of these players expected to hit at or near the middle of the order, a right-handed bat like Lagares could help to break up this logjam of lefties.

Alternative Options in Centerfield:

While I have discussed the most obvious candidates, there is a slough of lower-cost quick fixes that could give the Giants outfield defense an upgrade. Currently on waiting on the free agent market are the likes of Peter Bourjos and Rajai Davis, both of whom do not profile as regulars, but could be signed to one-year deals and serve as valuable outfield depth.

Outfield Help in the Farm System:

Aside from player acquisition, the Giants do have a few outfielders in their farm system that could provide them with a boost when a player inevitably gets hurt or underachieves.

The Giants prospect with the highest pedigree and MLB readiness is power hitting top prospect Chris Shaw. By trade, Shaw is a first baseman and that is still where the organization views him in the future. However, due to the poor performance of the Giants outfield last season, Shaw began taking reps in both right and left field just in case. Shaw has below average speed and would most likely be a liability at either corner outfield position, but his elite power could give the Giants offense a jolt if need be. Despite being a left-handed hitter, Brian Sabean believes he has the kind of pop that AT&T Park would do little to suppress his power output.

“The power will play at AT&T Park for him, even as a lefty,” Sabean said.

If the Giants are desperate at an outfield corner, they could give Shaw a trial run in the outfield in hopes that the damage he does with the bat outweighs any rust he shows in the outfield.

Another prospect that could give the Giants outfield a spark is center fielder Steven Duggar. While he lacks the prospect pedigree and high ceiling of Chris Shaw, Duggar is a natural centerfielder and is coming off a successful season in which he excelled at Double-A before getting an end of the season call-up at the Triple-A level. After posting a .830 OPS across two levels in 2017, Duggar went to the Arizona Fall League where many evaluators believed he improved his stock by showing above-average plate discipline, and enough defensive ability to profile as an everyday centerfielder. Duggar will start the season in Triple-A, but don’t be surprised to see him suited up in the orange and black at some point this season.

The Giants do have other talented outfielders in their system such as former 1st round pick Bryan Reynolds and Sandro Fabian, but both of these players have never played above High-A so it would take a miracle for them to provide any kind of reinforcements for the Giants outfield this season.

With a complete rundown of the Giants outfield situation heading into the 2018 season, I will outline what I believe would be the best moves they could make to address this spot of weakness.

Optimal Move(s)

  • Giants sign Jay Bruce to 3 year, 36 million dollar deal (club option for 12 million for 3rd year).
  • Giants trade #7 prospect LHP Garrett Williams, OF Heath Quinn, and SS/3B Ryan Howard to Cincinnati Reds for OF Billy Hamilton
  • Giants sign Peter Bourjos to 1 year, 1.5  million dollar deal.

Alternative Scenario:

  • Giants sign Jay Bruce to 3 year, 36 million dollar deal (club option for 12 million for 3rd year).
  • Giants sign Jarrod Dyson to 2 year, 6 million dollar deal.
  • Giants sign Cameron Maybin to 2 year, 8 million dollar deal to platoon against LHP in LF.
    • Giants extend non roster invitee to Ryan Raburn (platoon option)

Giants 2018 Lineup After Trades / Signings:

  1. Joe Panik (2B)
  2. Brandon Belt (1B)
  3. Buster Posey (C)
  4. Evan Longoria (3B)
  5. Jay Bruce (LF)
  6. Hunter Pence (RF)
  7. Brandon Crawford (SS)
  8. Billy Hamilton (CF)
  9. Madison Bumgarner (SP)

Finances After Outfield Trades / Free Agent Signings / Arbitration:

  1. Jay Bruce – 12 million AAV
  2. Billy Hamilton – 4.5 million
  3. Peter Bourjos – 2.5 million

Total: 19 million added. 161 million + 19 million = 180 million (15 million under luxury tax).

Finances After Outfield Trades / Free Agent Signings / Arbitration (Alternative Scenario):

  1. Jay Bruce – 12 million AAV
  2. Jarrod Dyson – 3 million AAV
  3. Cameron Maybin – 4 million AAV

Bottom Line: 19 million added. 161 million + 19 million = 180 million (15 million under luxury tax).

Either one of these scenarios, or something similar to them, would solidify the Giants lineup offensively as well as round out what would become a strong defensive unit. While the outfield is the primary concern for the Giants, other moves must be made if the Giants are going to go from a 64 win team to a playoff contender.

In the next article, I will look at what other moves the Giants should consider going forward.