My New Years resolution was to resist ripping Brian Sabean for as long as possible, so please give me credit for lasting 19 days. News has just come down that the San Francisco Giants and Pablo Sandoval have agreed to a 3 year contract for $17.15M — though the Panda’s local popularity seems to be obscuring the biggest conclusion that may be drawn — specifically, that Brian Sabean has once again handed out an absurdly player friendly contract that his player couldn’t have gotten anywhere else.
The specifics of the contract are as follows: Sandoval earns $3.2M in 2012, with raises to $5.7M in 2013 an $8.25 in 2014, which covers each of the three seasons Sandoval would have been eligible for arbitration. The contract doesn’t cover any free agent seasons and does not contain any club options.
Looking at his production on the field, Sandoval has seen highs and lows. Bursting on the scene after a short audition in 2008, Pablo posted a 330/387/556 triple slash over 153 games at the hot corner, with 25 HRs in pitcher friendly AT&T Park, good for a 145 wRC+ and 5.5 WAR. During the Giants championship run, Sandoval regressed significantly, posting a 268/323/409 line in the same number of games (93 wRC+, 1.8 WAR) — and while patience at the plate has never been the Panda’s calling card, more disturbing was the power drop (226 ISO in 2009, dropping to 140 in 2010, his 24 year old season). In 2011, however, Sandoval returned to his magical 2009 levels despite missing over a month to a broken bone in his hand — 315/357/552 with 23 HRs in only 117 games, wRC+ of 142 and another 5.5 WAR season.
Of course, with Pablo Sandoval, the numbers tell only half the story. The Giants list Sandoval at 5’11″/240 pounds, but his struggles with weight have been well documented and that number likely constitutes Sandoval’s best case scenario. After his 2010 struggles, Sandoval (at the Giants behest) committed to an offseason regimen that resulted in the loss of 40 pounds by opening day. Sadly, the weight loss was short lived, and by the end of the season Panda had found the missing pounds — though it should be said, there is little evidence that the increase affected his 2011 production.
As an organizational decision, then, Sabean must weigh a few different factors. First and Foremost, Pablo Sandoval is one of the games better third basemen. Looking at the 3 years 2009-2011, Sandoval matches up very well with some of the third basemen — 5th overall in WAR, fairly comparable to Kevin Youkilis and ARod, but a notch behind Longoria, Zimmerman and Beltre (something in which there is little shame).
Using Matt Swarz’s arbitration model, Sandoval was expected to get around $3.2M for the upcoming season. In 2013 and 2014, the rule of thumb generally would be that Sandoval might get 60 an 80 percent, respectively, of his open market value. If we project Sandoval to post consecutive 5-6 Win seasons in 2012 and 2013 (which of course would mean he’s nearly the best 3B in baseball) the Giants save perhaps $2-4M in 2013 and perhaps $3-$8M in 2014. The extension that the Giants and Sandoval just executed does not cover any of Sandoval’s free agent seasons, and do not contain any player options.Uniquely for Sabean, however, Sandoval is an elite third baseman who is not eligible for free agency for three more years. Further, Sandoval is a 25 year old whose weight has fluctuated (the wrong way) by nearly 50 pounds, and about whom serious questions remain regarding his ability to remain at the hot corner — it would appear noncontroversial to say that if he maintains his 240 pound playing weight, he might be able to survive at third for a few more seasons, but any increases would mean he’s staring at 1B. [It should also be noted that, though the questions abound regarding his fitness for 3B, he grades out relatively well according to advanced defensive metrics — he is certainly not currently a liability at the hot corner]
So, to recap: Pablo Sandoval has posted two good seasons and one bad season in the majors. He is not eligible for free agency until the 2015 season. In each of the past two seasons he has been 40 pounds overweight, at ages 24 and 25. In 2011, he missed over a month with a broken bone in his hand. Against that background, Sabean offered Sandoval a contract that saves no money in 2012, but might save $5-10M over two subsequent years assuming Sandoval maintains his weight, can continue to play third base and doesn’t get hurt. In the event any of those things happen, Sabean has wasted money on a player whom he controlled for 3 years and could have gone year to year with.
This is far from the worst contract of Sabean’s tenure — but there is little upside and significant downside and the contract would appear to make more likely the disastrous outcomes.