Things change, and things change quickly. Often for the better; often for the worse.
MLB’s Winter Meetings are a thing that changed. Read my Monday morning article on the start of the meetings, and you might have expected a few billion dollars to have been committed to players today, and for the San Francisco Giants to have already altered their roster. Instead, the biggest Monday news seems to be that Erick Fedde has a mystery team offering him more than $5 million per year. This quietness comes in addition to — or, more accurately, as a result of — rumors/reports/speculation that the two biggest free agents, Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto, are now expected to sign sometime after the meetings conclude on Wednesday. With few dominos expected to fall until at least Ohtani — and possibly Yamamoto — choose homes, the stage is set for a surprisingly quiet few days.
Another example of a thing that has changed: the Giants quotes regarding money. We’re about a month removed from chairman Greg Johnson publicly preaching a desire to “somewhat break even.” My stance is that Johnson’s ill-fated quote was more a sign of why he shouldn’t be the media-facing head of the Giants than that he shouldn’t be running the team (though there’s plenty of bullet points in that article, should anyone want to write it); but even so, there’s no denying the optics of Johnson’s quote.
But things do, indeed, change. And on Monday, we were treated to a much nicer quote about the retail therapy habits of the multi-billion-dollar enterprise whose monetary investments we’ve made emotional investments in. While joining the MLB Network crew, Giants President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi offered up a sentence that was a joy to hear, even if it will be very controversial to the Boston Red Sox: “Payroll flexibility doesn’t win games.”
As the kids say, don’t just talk about it — be about it. Which, in fairness, the Giants have tried to do in recent years. And it sure seems like they’re trying even harder this year. That’s how we ended up with a report about Yamamoto from the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser that, “executives from two teams who have had interest in him told the Chronicle on Sunday they believe the Giants have the edge.” It’s how the Giants have planted themselves firmly in the trade discussions for Juan Soto, despite him being a Scott Boras rental whose final year of arbitration will likely eclipse the annual value of every non-Ohtani contract signed this winter.
But no fish is bigger than Ohtani. And so there’s no greater sign of the Giants intention to replace payroll flexibility with entertaining victories than news that they remain in the running for the greatest free agent in modern baseball history, even as his price tag reportedly creeps closer to $600 million than $500 million.
Take this with an Arson Judge-sized grain of salt, but Jon Heyman reports that the Giants are one of six finalists for Ohtani, alongside the arguably surprising Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels; the not-at-all surprising Chicago Cubs; the extremely obvious Los Angeles Dodgers; and the most obvious team of all: the Mystery Team of Mysteryville.
And even Ohtani, seemingly hell-bent on going through this process with as much anonymity and perceived neutrality as possible, dropped a nugget — purposely or otherwise — showing interest in the Giants.
As someone who has been frequently checking his following count for clues, I can say Shohei Ohtani has now started following Logan Webb on Instagram https://t.co/F5osViMXtH— Jamie Griffith (@jamiegriffith80) December 4, 2023
Ohtani is arguably the greatest free agent in baseball history, but that doesn’t mean people are unanimously on board with putting him in inarguably the most beautiful baseball jerseys of all time. For as ruthless as the fanbase has been in criticizing Zaidi and ownership’s inability to land — or pay for — a star, I’ve seen a surprising number of fans voice the opinion that San Francisco would be better off passing on the only two-way star in modern history.
On the one hand, the idea of passing on a player who is not only the best but also most popular player in the world — by a landslide — is sillier than deciding that baseball should add magical runners to second base after nine innings. On the other hand, you can see at least the foundation for skepticism: Ohtani will get paid like a two-way superstar, even though he’ll be a one-way superstar in 2024, and the status of the second way is at least in partial question after undergoing a second Tommy John surgery. You can see why some might prefer divvying up that money to a few different players, instead of throwing all the million-dollar bills in one basket.
But if the intro to philosophical fallacies course that I took 14 years ago is still occupying part of my brain for good rather than for parody, then I think that is what we call a false dichotomy.
The Giants do not need to choose between signing Ohtani and adding multiple good players. They can acquire Ohtani and multiple good players. I’d even argue that the latter is necessary for the former, as Ohtani might require seeing proof of “no really, we can build a winning team, I promise bro” concept before sending a year’s salary to the Sotheby’s Pacific Heights office.
I understand hesitation in declaring the Giants ready to sign Ohtani and another big name or two, when the largest signing since Johnny Cueto has been Mitch Haniger. But the math is remarkably simple.
Per Spotrac, the Giants payroll last year was just over $189 million. Their commitments this year, after seeing Brandon Crawford, Joc Pederson, Alex Wood, and Sean Manaea come off the books, currently sit a shade below $119 million. That perceived $70 million in wiggle room is a bit misleading — Spotrac predicts a payroll in excess of $144 million after arbitration and pre-arbitration contracts are doled out.
But even if we assume the Giants head to that mark — which means tendering contracts to their remaining arbitration-eligible players, and not making any salary-shedding trades — that gives them about $45 million before even getting to last year’s payroll obligations.
Projections usually underestimate contracts, but Fangraphs projected Ohtani to land a 13-year deal worth $527 million ... or $40.5 million per year. In other words, the Giants could potentially add Ohtani, otherwise run it back, and still spend less money than they did a year ago.
That doesn’t solve the “add multiple stars” angle, but showing how easy it would be to accommodate the largest contract in MLB history is a good starting point for figuring out how to make the puzzle pieces fit.
Up next: creating more payroll space. It’s pretty easy for the Giants to do. Michael Conforto opting in suggests that no team was likely to give him more than $18 million this year, but he has enough value that the Giants should be able to easily get off his contract, if they want. Maybe they attach a mid-level prospect, maybe they take back an $8 million contract that they flip, maybe they throw in an MLBer with positive trade value (J.D. Davis, LaMonte Wade Jr., Austin Slater, or Mike Yastrzemski, perhaps?) — there are easy ways. Ross Stripling ($12.5 million) and Anthony DeSclafani ($12 million) can be moved in similar style.
We’ve already painted a picture of the Giants adding Ohtani at $40.5 million while decreasing payroll. Let’s add Yamamoto, and the $28 million annually that Fangraphs projects. To get there we’ll package Conforto with Davis’ projected $6.8 million arbitration figure (throw in Jairo Pomares and Landen Roupp, if you want) ... that $24.8 million, plus the surplus left after signing Ohtani, creates just enough space for the Giants to add the two biggest names in free agency, and they still haven’t spent as much as they did a year ago (they’re sure making more in revenue, though — just look at those season tickets printing!).
We’re not done.
All of this fiscal maneuvering has been done with the intent of keeping the Giants payroll from exceeding what it was a year ago ... in a year that, behind the scenes, they probably knew was unlikely to be super fruitful after losing out on Aaron Judge and Carlos Correa. What they’re willing to spend for a team that is both good and selling out Oracle Park is surely higher.
When Johnson spoke his poorly-chosen words of attempted billionaire sympathy mining, he drove the attention away from a much more important quote in the same answer: “When you look at the luxury tax, one year you can go past that if you have to. I don’t think it’s something we want to do for a long period ... we plan on being active, and if we have to go through that, we will go through that.”
If the Giants are openly willing to occasionally go through the Competitive Balance Tax, then I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt and say what they didn’t: that they’re willing to regularly come close to the CBT, if the team is competitive and puts butts in seats.
So here’s where it gets fun. We’ve been doing this cute little exercise with a self-imposed limit of $189 million, since that was the team’s 2023 payroll.
The 2024 CBT is $237 million. We just found $48 million more to play with.
If Johnson’s quote is to be believed, I’d have to think the Giants would be willing to exceed the CBT this year if it helped them land Ohtani. He’ll print the team money, and they’ll have no problem resetting the tax a year later as more contracts come off the books.
But let’s instead keep them under the penalty. And hey, what do you know: Fangraphs projects Davis’ replacement, Matt Chapman, to clock in at $24 million annually. Center fielder Jung-hoo Lee adds another $15 million.
In this scenario — which, yes, we can call a fantasy — the Giants have lost Conforto and Davis. They’ve added Ohtani, Yamamoto, Chapman, and Lee. They’ve stayed comfortably under the CBT (important since those contract projections could be prove to be a touch timid), with $34.5 million set to come off the books next offseason with Stripling, DeSclafani, and Alex Cobb. Logan Webb’s price will increase with his extension — which looks like a steal — but so will the CBT. And the bulk of the team’s young, core players are still a long ways away from needing to be paid.
I can’t promise that the Giants are willing to spend money on multiple stars. And even if I could, I wouldn’t be able to promise that they’d actually land any.
But making the math work? Even this humanities major is having an easy time with it.