With Carlos Rodón having opted out, let’s focus on two replacement pitchers the San Francisco Giants both might have interest in and have a shot at signing. Keith Law ranked the top 50 free agents for The Athletic (subscription required) and I quickly scrolled to the bottom of the list — what sabermetricians call The Cool Zone — to find pitchers who might be at the very top of Zaidi and Pitula’s board.
Even though I dared the Giants to bring their payroll to $200 million, I never let go of my nagging suspicion that for all their caterwauling about how this season went and rumors of a big spend this offseason that it’s an elaborate ruse. They know nobody good wants to play for them, even if they overpay. They know they’re going to be the third-best team in the division for the next several years. They also know they still have to do something.
Ten days after I dared the Giants, I wrote about that nagging suspicion, wondering just how “cute” the team would get in order to execute this ruse.
They have a lot of money coming off the books this offseason, so if they were to spend $60-$80 million in free agency, that would look like a lot and make it seem like they did spend money this offseason, but it will probably just get them back to around $155-$165 million by Opening Day, which is about where they were this year.
Steven has made the point that the Giants don’t have a lot of incentive to go big this offseason, anyway. They’re pretty brilliant and successful just by sticking to their process. It’s a little aggravating that the process involves strictly following the Academy Award winning A Beautiful Mind’s misinterpretation of the Nash Equilibrium:
... but it’s hard to argue with results. The Giants don’t need talent to be competitive. So that means settling to get closer to what you want in order to avoid competing for what you really want. Or something. I don’t think that movie has aged as well as people think.
Anyway, what’s really important to know here is that even if the Giants don’t have any intention or any ability to land a Carlos Rodón-level replacement, they have still been really, really, really good at putting together a starting rotation. Theoretically, Kyle Harrison is on the way. They really just need a somewhat reliable pitcher who can gobble up innings with some just slightly better than average performance as they muddle through the season in hopes of backing into the third Wild Card or be that insurance policy in case any of the other injury risks become injured.
The best way to do that isn’t to pay for a guy who already does that. It’s to underpay a guy who can’t right now but has the chance to thanks to some green boxes in the internal analyses and the right coaching. Director of Pitching Brian Bannister has no doubt done a lot of his own research on the free agent field and reported his findings to leadership about potential diamonds in the rough. Which brings us back to Keith Law’s list.
Here are two that caught my eye:
43. Corey Kluber, RHP, age 37
2022 (Tampa Bay Rays): 4.34 ERA, 164 IP, 21 BB, 139 K, 20 HR, 0.6 rWAR/3.0 fWAR
47. Andrew Heaney, LHP, age 32
2022 (Los Angeles Dodgers): 3.10 ERA, 72.2 IP, 19 BB, 110 K, 14 HR, 0.7 rWAR/1.1 fWAR
These two names are important because the Giants appear ready to ghost Carlos Rodón. Pull an “I don’t know her.” Have Pete Putila reply back, “New GM. Who dis?” I make these stale jokes not just because I’m out of touch but because SABR negging is stale. Boo-hoo risk. Blah-blah depressing the market to lower future projected costs. Knick-knack nobody but nerds and lenders likes this.
Rodón’s injury risk is the same as Alex Cobb’s, the same as Alex Wood’s, the same as Anthony DeSclafani’s, the same as Aaron Sanchez’s, the same as Jake McGee’s, the same as Tyler Anderson’s. The Giants want that free agent dollar per WAR to be as close to their internal dollar per WAR calculation as possible. Without exception. To build a sustainable winner, you have to stay ruthlessly efficient at the top, but you can be as Donovan Walton-y and Stuart Fairchildren at the bottom as you want. And then when your team sucks and paying customers get angry, you just pout as best you can, saying “We’re frustrated!”
So how can either Kluber or Heaney improve the Giants in 2023? Let’s employ Baseball Savant’s pitch measures for a closer look. And let’s start with a Statcast overview of the Giants’ second best pitcher in 2022: Logan Webb.
I look at that and I see a player who put up a stellar season with a combination of cunning & guile plus well scripted pitch sequencing. Webb’s mistakes were crushed, but he did a really good job of pitching away from batters’ kill zones. He was one of 13 pitchers to have thrown 190+ innings and he allowed just 11 home runs, tied with Framber Valdez and Martin Perez. Overall, he was about as valuable as Yu Darvish.
Kluber and Heaney don’t compare, but I wanted to put the best the Giants have left on the roster up for all to see so that it’s clear what I’m comparing these two against, figuring Rodon is gone. A fairer comparison might be to Jakob Junis and/or Alex Wood or even Shelby Miller, but both players will cost a bit more than that group, so I’m instead going to simply try to gauge how they might compare to the best.
He’ll be 37 next season and he had Tommy John surgery in 2019. and a “soft-tosser” like that might not be especially useful in the NL West with two bashing lineups and Coors Field to contend with. He got batters to chase, but didn’t put them away via the strikeout which could be a problem against lineups that are hard to strikeout.
He threw 164 innings across 31 starts. A full season workload for basically a five-inning starter, but this batted ball info shows just how effective he was in those brief outings. The Chase Rate and Walk Rate percentiles really jump out, of course, and for a dude who threw exclusively in the high-80s (88.9 mph average sinker velocity) those spin, exit, and hard hit rates are impressive-ish, amounting to a 3.0 fWAR. Put it all together, drop the minimum innings pitched down to 160 in order to catch him on the sort list, and FanGraphs put him as the 26th-most valuable starting pitcher. The Rays got all that for $8 million. As a back of the rotation buffer who will likely cost $12 million or less on a 1-year deal, who’d have the benefit of Oracle Park when it comes to any mistakes, and who’s obviously better than Jakob Junis or who could serve as a 1-year bridge should Kyle Harrison struggle, should Anthony DeSclafani fully pumpkin, should Alex Wood hit the IL, should Logan Webb (No! No!!), etc. he’s an interesting player for the Giants to pursue.
He missed half of last season with shoulder discomfort which limited him to just 72.2 IP in 16 games (14 starts), so he’s a big red flag for injury — which almost makes him the perfect candidate from the Giants’ perspective. Right-handed batters homered off him at a tremendous rate (13 in 98 right-handed batters faced), which could be a problem even pitching in Oracle Park, where right-handed batters supposedly have the advantage. His four-seamer, the pitch the threw the most and got a 30% Whiff Rate on (good!) still only averages about 93. Batters did not seem to have trouble squaring him up overall, which could be a really big problem if the Giants don’t overhaul their entire defense — and with the limits on the shift, this could still make it tough to gameplan the defense around him.
There is a lot of red on that Statcast overview and in all the areas you’d want if you’re trying to find the sneaky quality guy you can pay below market rate for. And if he’s even more valuable if he is considered as either a bridge to Harrison or a bulk guy for bullpen games, to say nothing of his ability to limit the damage by left-handed batters. A pale replacement for Rodón to be sure, but it’s important to remember that the Giants aren’t built to do 1:1 replacements anymore. It’s all about creating value in the aggregate.
Dark Horse Candidate
28. Ross Stripling, RHP, age 33
2022 (Toronto Blue Jays): 3.01 ERA, 134.1 IP, 20 BB, 111 K, 10 HR, 2.7 rWAR/3.1 fWAR
The Dodgers connection would be too tempting for Farhan Zaidi to pass up, I’d imagine. Seems like he’d get at least a look by the front office. The issue would seem to be that there’d be a lot of competition for his services... though I suspect that will be the case with Kluber or Heaney, too — other teams have needs that they can only afford to fill by looking in earnest where the Giants trawl to save a buck or other teams are driven by the same internal modeling and decision-making.
I also don’t see a big difference in his Statcast stats versus Jakob Junis, who will cost substantially less than Stripling (arbitration vs. free agency - Stripling made $3.7 million or so last year). I just wanted to put him here because he could be that swingman and he had such a great season in the AL East that it seems implausible he’d avoid Zaidi’s interest.
Now that the Dodgers’ failures and Phillies’ success have given the Giants cover to sort of ignore improving the team in any substantial way — via free agency; who knows about the farm system — we should all feel comfortable lowering our expectations in terms of sexy names while expecting that whatever retreads they do pick up will, at least on the pitching side, have a solid season.
But this is a debate, and so I should answer the question: Kluber or Heaney? I think the Giants should re-sign Carlos Rodón, even if it’ll cost five years to do so. But I know they won’t, because they’re much smarter than me — literally anyone in the western hemisphere, if we’re being honest — and that dollar saved today could go towards paying down some of the later years of Marco Luciano’s contract when the front office regime after Zaidi & Putila has to trade him for prospects. It’s just smart planning to spend as little as possible on players not drafted or developed by your own organization.
Still... probably should settle the debate of who’s better. Kluber has the track record, Heaney has the Statcast green flags. But Kluber is old and right-handed and Heaney is younger and left-handed. I’ll take the chance to pitching science Heaney into more of a beast over hoping Kluber’s high-80s stuff will continue to play. Heaney.