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Leftist thought

The Giants still need starting pitching, and a rotation of left-handed starting pitchers wouldn’t be so bad.

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World Baseball Classic Championship: United States v Japan Photo by Eric Espada/Getty Images

The top free agent pitcher on the market, Yoshinobu Yamamoto, remains unsigned with only a couple of weeks left in calendar year 2023. That’s good news and bad news for the San Francisco Giants, of course, because when is it ever just good news?

The good: they’re still in the game. It means I can rewatch this breakdown video for the fifth time without a shred of shame. Just look at him pitch! I don’t see a 1:1 Lincecum match there, but it sure is nice to be reminded of The Freak.

And then Eno Sarris’s breakdown (subscription required) tags him, at least in part, with a comp to a more recent Giant: Kevin Gausman.

The bad news part of this story is that if the Giants do somehow miss out on Yamamoto, they and the other teams who missed out will be in direct competition for the next level of free agent pitching. So, as we I hold out hope that Yoshinobu Yamamoto is simply playing the two New York teams off each other as stalking horses to get the offer he wants from the Giants, the team he’s actually wanted to play for all along, let’s look at some other pitchers who’ve been recently attached to the Giants.

It’s not too surprising that they’ve been linked to a series of left-handed pitchers. For one thing, they’re the best of the rest after Yamamoto and Ohtani; for another thing, even with Kyle Harrison potentially working at the back of the rotation, the Giants could still use multiple lefties to face off against the NL’s best hitters. By wRC+:

Shohei Ohtani (LAD), 180
Freddie Freeman (LAD), 163
Matt Olson (ATL), 155
Bryce Harper (PHI), 142
Nolan Jones (COL), 135
Cody Bellinger, 134
Corbin Carroll (AZ), 133
Luis Arraez (MIA), 132
Brandon Nimmo (NYM), 130
Will Benson (CIN), 128
Brandon Marsh (PHI), 125
Christian Yelich (MIL), 122
Jason Heyward (LAD), 121

And this is just some of the list. There’s also Kyle Schwarber, Brendon Donovan, Nolan Gorman, James Outman, Max Muncy, Jack Suwinski (Giants killer), and the AL guys they’ll have to face — Yordan Alvarez, Corey Seager, Kyle Tucker, Juan Soto. Half of the best hitters (120+ wRC+) in MLB last season were left-handed hitters.

Of course, last season, the Giants led MLB with a 3.58 ERA against left-handed hitting and so maybe you’re of the belief that the Giants don’t need to do anything to beef up their abilities. So, maybe the Giants might only need to take a look at one of these guys... if they fail to land Yamamoto, a player they almost certainly have a good chance of signing.........

Anyway, here are three names they’ve been attached to this past week:

Shōta Imanaga

This comes by way of a Jon Morosi tweet yesterday, which maybe 8 days ago I would’ve lent a little more weight to, but after his Ohtani debacle and inability to read a map, I’m downgrading all Morosi reporting to blogger speculation.

All that said, it makes sense.

Pros:

He’s called The Throwing Philosopher. That’s really all I need to hear.

But I guess if you’re looking for more in depth scouting, consider this. Regrettably, I’m citing more Morosi reporting, because it was through this video (the Imanaga portion begins about halfway through) that I was reminded that Imanaga started Japan’s Gold Medal game in the WBC this past season.

Sports Info Solution’s Brandon Tew (who wrote this comprehensive scouting report on Jung Hoo Kim, btw) has a topline comment in his report on Imanaga that sparkles:

A strike-throwing lefty with some of the best pure stuff in the world... His spot in an MLB rotation will be determined by whether he can keep the ball in the ballpark.

This gets contextualized by this Eno Sarris tweet:

He is a high spin rate command guy. The Giants signing the 21st century equivalent of a craft lefty would excite a lot of people in the fanbase, myself included. If we’re ever unclear about the Giants’ philosophy, we can go ask their resident philosopher.

His cost, relative to the likes of Ohtani and Yamamoto even with the posting fee factored in, wouldn’t hinder the Giants from making multiple other moves this offseason and beyond.

Cons:

It strains credulity that a pitcher who throws 91-92, a slider in the low 80s and a sweeper in the 70s could be as effective against MLB hitters as he was against NPB’s variety. The homeritis doesn’t actually bother me given the help he’ll get from Oracle Park, but he seems like a guy whose size (“5-10”) and age (turns 31 in September 2024) will struggle to convert to the new mound, new ball, and new hitters as elegantly or even as quickly as younger players making the transition. 1100 innings on a 30-year old pitcher’s arm with a league transition pending doesn’t seem like a wise and cool investment... if it can be avoided.

At the same time, there’s a case to be made that the Giants could sprinkle some of their development dust on him like they did with Sean Manaea last season and juice that fastball.

Sean Manaea

Susan Slusser dropped this bit at the end of an article from the 13th: “ The Giants also have interest in reuniting with starter Sean Manaea.” That came as a bit of a surprise to me because it sure felt like both the team and the player had mutually used each other to get what they wanted out of 2023 and a second go-around would seem to be more obviously beneficial to one party over the other.

But maybe both parties are simply keeping their options open in the event that their best laid plans do not materialize.

Pros:

Familiarity. A lefty who throws 95.

In my player review last month, I noted that as disastrous as Manaea’s Giants career began, it ended on such a high note that it almost makes you wonder how things might’ve gone had he been good for them from the start.

...he didn’t allow a homer for 11 weeks across 53.1 innings. He pitched so well that his absence from the rotation became a question for Gabe Kapler as the season unraveled.

[...]

His last four appearances of the season were starts against tricky opponents. Cleveland, despite a lackluster offense, is a tough lineup for a pitcher who walks 3 per 9. Then there was Coors Field, the Dodgers in LA and then the Padres at Oracle. The results:

24 IP
0.92 WHIP
18 K
2 BB
2 HRA
2.25 ERA (3.21 FIP)

And if there is a nexus of comparison between Imanaga and Manaea, then having one or both of them on the same roster can serve a purpose. Maybe Imanaga’s philosophy rubs off on Manaea. Maybe Manaea’s buy-in on the Giants’ pitch design and coaching convinces Imanaga. Or maybe either is a proof of concept for the other. If the Giants don’t get Imanaga, they have a chart for Manaea’s future, and vice versa.

Cons:

Familiarity. The Giants have to believe that he’s the guy from those final starts. They have to believe that the walks are under control. If either thing proves untrue, then they’ll be setup to pay a lot for a little, a situation they really can’t afford to have at this point.

Now, the Giants are wise and stubborn, so Manaea would almost certainly be signing up for a similar role to the one he had last season, which could work out great or blow up in their faces. But it feels like if it comes to the point where both sides are considering another deal that everyone will be doing so in order to save face.

Blake Snell

Slusser’s article that mentioned Manaea was really about the Giants pivoting to get Blake Snell and in that case she was really writing more from a place of opinion that details. While it’s true that the Giants’ Humm Baby coaching staff have familiarity with Snell from his past two seasons in San Diego, there hasn’t been much of anything else linking the two parties.

Pros:

It would be a good thing to add a 2-time Cy Young Award winner, even if his first year of a long-term deal will be his age-31 season. He’s another hard-throwing lefty but features a curveball as his secondary pitch rather than a slider. That curveball had a +22 Run Value in 2023, good enough to be the sixth-most effective pitch in Major League Baseball. To put it in perspective, Logan Webb’s +28 changeup was the #2 pitch in MLB, behind Gerrit Cole’s +29 4-seamer.

His 31.5% strikeout rate was in the top 6% of the league, he has a lot of red on his Statcast page (and you can value that however you want), and so he fits the profile of what most teams look for — they can plug his numbers into a model and improve their season outcome. He should be a great player to have in the first two years of the deal.

Cons:

He’s sort of like the pitching version of Cody Bellinger, where there are some scary underlying numbers preventing evaluators from tagging him with a “simply the best” label. His 13.3% walk rate (5.0 BB/9) was in the bottom 4% of the league. He’s a stuff guy. What happens when his stuff diminishes? That’s going to happen. Last season was only the second time he’d pitched 180 innings. The other time? In 2018, his age-25 season, when he won his first Cy Young as a member of the Rays.

Still, the Giants have guys like Keaton Winn, Tristan Beck, and Kyle Harrison who can actually serve to fill out innings around Snell in the event he doesn’t even come close to reaching 180 innings. And don’t forget about Ross Stripling! Given the team’s depth and the tantalizing prospects offered by a lefty who throws 95, Snell is a good player to have.

Jordan Montgomery

Here’s a fourth player I’m including because I haven’t seen him connected to the Giants who I think makes just as much sense as any of these other players. He gets a cursory mention in Slusser’s opinion piece and she even manages to bring up a reason why we haven’t heard the two parties mentioned together:

Montgomery has been linked to the Rangers after helping them win the World Series and the Red Sox because his wife is doing a medical residency in New England.

That’s a big obstacle to overcome, but as I’ll note in a bit, that’s nothing new for the Giants. Every free agent acquisition carries huge obstacles for them. They’re just not in a good position.

Pros: A few weeks ago, I put forth a plan for the Giants to still have a successful offseason in the event that they missed out on most of the bigger fish at the top of the market. In this Plan C, Montgomery seemed like a natural fit:

The best way to think of him is as a left-handed Logan Webb. Although their groundball rates are not the same (Webb’s was 59.9% 2021-2023, Montgomery’s 44.5%), they limit home runs and are more pitch to contact than strikeout guys (both have 8.3 K/9 over past three seasons). Webb has been better, of course, but Montgomery has been a top 20 pitcher in the past three seasons and pairing him with the team’s pitching plan will only make the World Series winner that much better. I’ll predict 5 years, $120 million ($24 million CBT figure)

Here are the starting pitchers worth 10+ WAR (via FanGraphs) over the past three seasons (2021-2023):

Zack Wheeler (PHI), +17.3
Kevin Gausman (SF/TOR), +15.8
Corbin Burnes (MIL). +15.5
Aaron Nola (PHI), +14.6
Gerrit Cole (NYY), +13.7
Logan Webb (SFG), +13.1
Sandy Alcantara (MIA), +12.9
Dylan Cease (CHW), +12.6
Max Scherzer (WAS/LAD/NYM/TEX), +12.0
Carlos Rodon, (CHW, SFG, NYY), +11.0
Luis Castillo (CIN, SEA), +11.0
Shohei Ohtani (LAA), +10.9
Zac Gallen (ARI), +10.7
Max Fried (ATL), +10.6
Framber Valdez (HOU), +10.5
Spencer Strider (ATL), +10.3
Jordan Montgomery (STL/NYY/TEX), +10.2
Sonny Gray (CIN/MIN), +10.1

You’ll notice that Blake Snell isn’t on this list, although it’s basically a distinction without a difference (he was measured at +9.8 fWAR). But this is a who’s who list. He’s been, essentially, the most underrated starting pitcher in baseball over the past three seasons.

Cons:

Well, there’s the distance. Then there’s the fact that he’ll be another 31-year old seeking a long-term deal (he turns 31 on December 27th). The industry consensus is that he’s not worth a nine-figure deal and even some of my interactions with Giants fans online have said the same, and since everybody is smarter than me, it seems like his cost will be a huge con.

How it works against the Giants, I’m not quite sure. Those concerned about the Giants being saddled with pricey long-term commitments (when they cleaned house and hired Zaidi because of those prior pricey long-term commitments) don’t seem to consider much how difficult it is for the Giants to sign players of any stripe. The summary of the post-Ohtani San Francisco doom loop cycle didn’t actually change the previous perception — and remember, perception is reality: the A-tier players don’t want to play for the Giants. That makes the Giants a B-tier squad no matter what they do.

The actual good news about being a B-tier team is that they’ll never want for players. There are always guys hanging around who, for the price of 25-30% above the expected market value, can be yours. Hopefully, they won’t all La Stella or Haniger on you, but if they do, that’s okay. The deals aren’t going to prevent you from getting an A-tier player because at the end of the day those guys don’t want to play for the Giants (except for Yamamoto, obviously).