Today marks the start of MLB free agency, but before the San Francisco Giants can get to signing Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, Jung-hoo Lee, Cody Bellinger, and Blake Snell, while trading for Mike Trout and Juan Soto, they must first figure out who is on the roster. And while it went down to the wire in terms of being announced, the final domino has fallen: outfielder Michael Conforto has opted in to the final year of his contract, and will return to the Giants for $18 million.
Michael Conforto has opted in and will make $18M for Giants in 2024— Jon Heyman (@JonHeyman) November 6, 2023
Conforto’s decision comes after left-handed pitcher Sean Manaea opted out of the final year of his deal, while the Giants picked up a team option for right-handed pitcher Alex Cobb. As he said he would do a few months ago, right-handed pitcher Ross Stripling also opted into his contract for 2024.
It’s hard to know how the Giants feel about Conforto’s decision. On the one hand, they surely see him as a potential bounce-back candidate, which is why they signed him to a contract last year in the first place. He didn’t have a very good 2023 in his first season since returning from injury, but let’s not forget that Conforto put up a 158 wRC+ and 2.1 fWAR in the COVID-shortened 2020 season, and had a 134 OPS+ from 2017-2020, when he was legitimately one of the best hitters in all of baseball. Still just 30 years old, it’s well within the realm of feasible outcomes that Conforto bounces back in 2024 with not just a good offensive season, but an All-Star caliber one.
On the other hand, his 2023 was distinctly average, with the lefty slugger finishing with a 100 wRC+, a 99 OPS+, 1.1 fWAR, 0.7 rWAR, and passable-but-not-particularly-good defense. There’s reason for optimism, but there’s equal reason for pessimism.
The bigger issue, however, is the outfield structure. Farhan Zaidi has been open about the team’s need to improve both the athleticism and the talent in the outfield, and for good reason. San Francisco’ outfield corps in 2023 was 25th in the Majors in fWAR (+3.5), 25th in wRC+ (93), 29th in stolen bases (23), and 28th in defensive Outs Above Average (-13).
San Francisco can hope for a bounce-back from Conforto on his larger-than-preferable contract, but they’re already doing that with Mitch Haniger. Mike Yastrzemski and Austin Slater are arbitration-eligible outfielders who should be paid very reasonably, and the Giants seem intent on finding a way to find playing time for prospects Luis Matos, Heliot Ramos, Wade Meckler, and Tyler Fitzgerald.
There’s a lot of room for improvement, but there’s not a lot of room for improvement, if that makes sense. They Giants are reported to be all in on Lee, a 25-year old five-time KBO Gold Glove center fielder, and it seems likely that old foe Bellinger will get a call or five from Zaidi if Lee signs elsewhere.
Long story short, the Giants opened the offseason with too many outfielders and not enough clearly-good outfielders, and Conforto opting in only exacerbates that. And soon we’ll find out whether he has the bounce-back year the Giants were hoping for in 2023, another disappointing campaign, or gets used as trade bait as the team addresses the outfield issues. I think it’s safe to say that there is next to no way that Conforto, Haniger, Yastrzemski, and Slater are all on the Opening Day roster.
Until then, Conforto is saying all the right things:
Michael Conforto on opting in and playing for Bob Melvin: “I’m excited to be back, and can’t wait to get to work! I’m excited to get to know him, I’ve only heard great things from players and coaches who have worked with him. I know the rest of the guys are pumped as well.”— Andrew Baggarly (@extrabaggs) November 6, 2023
That’s a lot of words to say “turns out no one would pay me more than $18 million,” but I appreciate the sentiment nonetheless. Even with a few recent disappointing years, Conforto has “middle-of-a-great-lineup” potential, and seems like a great guy and a good teammate. I’ll be pulling for him.