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The Panda is back

And he’s ahead of schedule.

MLB: Washington Nationals at San Francisco Giants Cody Glenn-USA TODAY Sports

In news that is likely to catch most people off guard, the San Francisco Giants are reportedly re-signing affable corner infielder Pablo Sandoval.

The news was first reported by MLB Network’s Jon Heyman, who notes that it’s a $2 million minor league deal, with an additional $750,000 in incentives. Heyman adds that Sandoval is expected to make the team.

Most surprising, however, is the reported health status of the Panda. In the midst of a surprisingly good 2019, Sandoval underwent Tommy John surgery in early September. The assumption was that he would be sidelined for the bulk of the 2020 season, perhaps returning to an American League team where he could be a designated hitter who only hit from one side.

But according to Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area, Sandoval is a good ways ahead of that initial trajectory. Pavlovic notes that the 33-year old met with new Giants manager Gabe Kapler earlier in the year, at which point the wheels were in motion for a return to San Francisco.

In an article, Pavlovic added that Sandoval and Kapler got along well:

The Giants kept in touch, however, and Kapler met with Sandoval earlier this offseason in Miami. The two hit it off, and the Giants became intrigued by a comeback, knowing that Sandoval fills a need and also should be back far sooner than originally anticipated.

Putting baseball performance and sentimentality aside (for a paragraph or two), this is a funny story. Sandoval squeaked onto last year’s roster, and the narrative was that he only made the team because of Bruce Bochy. Sandoval and Bochy have a very close relationship, and the belief (which is likely true) is that then-newly minted president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi kept Sandoval on the roster at Bochy’s behest. Or, perhaps more eloquently, to help Bochy’s final year not have any negative strains. A dinger-mashing olive branch, of sorts.

Naturally, those who believed Sandoval was not good at baseball (a claim with four years of supporting evidence) thought him the furthest thing from Zaidi’s philosophy. Seeing Zaidi and general manager Scott Harris opt to re-sign Sandoval in the first year post-Bochy is pretty funny, and also cool.

In reality, if Sandoval is anything like his 2019 self, he’s not only a good player, but actually someone who decently fits Zaidi’s style. Sandoval can play two infield positions (3B and 1B), plus two more (2B and C) in an emergency. He also has two no-hit innings pitched on his resume, which counts for something (in my book, at any rate). He hits from both sides of the plate, is more than happy to spend time on the bench, and has a proven track record as a pinch-hitter.

For all of the Giants transactions, they don’t really have a backup first baseman who isn’t also their starting catcher, and they don’t have a third baseman who can hit from the left side, which is Sandoval’s strong side.

Last year he slashed .268/.313/.507. It was his best OPS (.820) since 2011, and his best wRC+ (110) since 2014. His defense wasn’t good, but it wasn’t horrible either. Baseball-Reference put him at 1.5 Wins Above Replacement, while Fangraphs had him at 1.0 - not numbers that will get him in the All-Star Game, but perfectly acceptable value for a player who had fewer than 300 plate appearances. And it gives the team a veteran, fan favorite option that makes it a little easier to trade Brandon Belt or Evan Longoria, should good deals present themselves.

Either way, the Panda is back. Back where he belongs.