If you had asked during 2019 Spring Training, where Pablo Sandoval would be for 2020 Opening Day, I would have had a very simple answer: Not on the San Francisco Giants roster.
At the time, Sandoval was a 32 year old who hadn’t had a good season in five years, and the Giants were a rebuilding squad who figured to be returning to the playoffs sometime after Sandoval’s final non-roster camp invitation had been signed.
And now, as MLB begins to take the steps towards finally getting the 2020 season underway, here’s the Panda: All but guaranteed to be on the Giants roster when Opening Day rolls around.
How did Sandoval end up in such an unlikely spot? Through heavy doses of impressive work, tremendous luck, and horrendous global misfortune.
Here’s how it happened.
Inclusion on the 2019 roster
Sandoval wasn’t really supposed to make the 2019 Opening Day roster, let alone the 2020 one.
President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi had just taken over, representing a massive shift towards modernity and analytics in the Giants front office. Sandoval was viewed as a sign of the antiquated ways of the past decision-makers — a franchise icon who had been brought back by sentimental folks who couldn’t see his shoddy slash line because there was a plump World Series ring placed on top of each column.
Sandoval’s OPS+ (with 100 being average) in the four seasons since leaving San Francisco the first time after the 2014 season: 75, -57, 64, 101.
He was 32, bad at baseball, and the Giants were rebuilding. What spot did he have on the roster?
A pinch-hitting and occasional starting spot, apparently. Largely believed to be a concession Zaidi was making to the departing Bruce Bochy, Sandoval was included on the roster, for chemistry and clubhouse happiness, if no other reason.
Sandoval may have not been a player Zaidi actually wanted on the roster — or he may have been, who knows — but he quickly played like the exact type of player Zaidi covets. He was comfortable starting, or coming off the bench. He played multiple positions, and displayed a willingness to play others (including pitcher!) in a pinch. He could hit from either side of the plate. He defined the very versatility that Zaidi had been preaching.
More importantly, he was good. He had a resurgence from both sides of the plate, posting his highest OPS since 2011, and his highest OPS+ since 2013. He finished sixth on the team — and third among position players — in rWAR, despite getting fewer than 300 plate appearances.
He was an asset.
Despite being an asset in 2019, no one expected the Giants to re-sign Sandoval. With Bochy now gone, the only reason to sign the Panda would be for baseball reasons. Perhaps those reasons would be enough had he not undergone Tommy John surgery in September, which figured to take much of the 2020 season from him.
The general belief was that Sandoval would be likely to miss about half a season, and then be forced to be an American League designated hitter in the second half.
Instead, Sandoval defied the odds with his rehab, and the Giants were surprised to learn that he was already resuming baseball activities before position players even reported to camp.
Shocking everyone, they signed him to a $2 million minor league deal, with an additional $750,000 in incentives.
He couldn’t play in the field yet, but he could hit — from one side of the plate. He posted a .760 OPS in the spring, and the assumption was within a few weeks of the season starting, he’d be ready to start using his arm again.
Ahh, yes, like I said, not all of the things that led to Sandoval’s presumed opening day roster inclusion are good. Despite being a near-lock to make the team, he would have opened the year on the injured list had the season started on March 26, as was the plan.
But you all know what happened. The coronavirus pandemic led to the season being suspended, and, even if the rosiest proposal comes true, 2020 Opening Day will take place more than three months behind schedule.
Barring a setback, Sandoval will be fully healthy by then. He probably already is. And even if there are any lingering concerns in the arm, there figures to be a universal designated hitter this year, further opening a spot for him — and giving him a spot to shine as more than just a pinch-hitter.
A lot had to happen — good and bad — for Sandoval to make the 2020 Giants Opening Day roster.
But it sure looks bound to happen.