Some consider the San Francisco Giants’ signing of first baseman Aubrey Huff (CBS5, via MLB Trade Rumors) to a one-year, $3 million deal uninspiring. While Huff should provide a return on investment, it is hard to disagree.
The Giants are able to boast a payroll of $80-$90 million, but with Tim Lincecum hitting arbitration as well as the incredibly short-sighted contracts of Barry Zito and Aaron Rowand, payroll flexibility is a difficult thing to come by.
Back when Barry Bonds was part of the club and the team was advancing to the 2002 World Series, general manager Brian Sabean threw money at the major league system with no regard for the minors, likely dictated from up top. In a switch once the team fell flat on its face (equally both Sabean and the previous ownership’s fault), the minor leagues have taken on increased importance in the post-Bonds era, and the Giants have slowly built up into a contender again, no thanks to the Zito and Rowand contracts. In fact, Sabean got burned yet again last offseason, signing shortstop Edgar Renteria to a two-year, $18.5 million deal that was a disaster from day one. Renteria himself wasn’t a bad option at the time, but Sabean struck too quickly — he could have ended up with Renteria at significantly less dollars if he had waited the market out into what ended up a recession.
Coming into the 2010 offseason, it was clear that Sabean would be hamstrung financially with a need to upgrade multiple offensive positions in order to chase down a NL West title. It’s questionable if the club could even have afforded Matt Holliday or Jason Bay, but assuming they did, the loss of draft picks and long-term flexibility didn’t make sense for a club already grappling with two big-money players not living up to expectations. With multiple positions needing help (namely first base and left field), Sabean went with flexibility and platoon advantages, which — while not necessarily preferred — is generally a surefire way to cheaply upgrade your team.
Huff has stark platoon splits and is best off facing right-handers. While Pablo Sandoval eventually will need to move to first, the Kung-Fu Panda is on a crash diet to bring down his weight. Assuming he can shed some of it, he might be able to stick at third for a couple more years. By slotting Huff at first, Sandoval at third and making DeRosa a left fielder against right-handers, the lineup starts looking like it could do some damage.
Most projections seem to think Huff will bounce back to roughly an OPS no lower than .750. If the Giants platoon him against right-handers, that .750 OPS would have to be considered the low end Huff’s expected value. At an expected 1-2 WAR on the season, $3 million represents a win on the Giants’ part, at least according to Sky Andrecheck, who found that one win (WAR) was worth about $6 to $7 million. Applying this to Huff’s case, $3 million represents an expectation of .48 WAR, something Huff should have no trouble eclipsing.
The only question here is if Huff’s signing, even as beneficial as it may be, was the right idea.
Take Adam LaRoche, another first baseman on the market. He has been reportedly seeking a deal around three years and $30 million and probably won’t settle for anything less than two years and $16 million. Projected to be around 2-3 WAR, it seems as if Huff is the better choice.
Don’t forget about Ryan Garko. The Giants dealt minor league pitcher Scott Barnes — who has some upside — to the Indians last July for Garko, who has a right-handed platoon split as well. Garko’s 115 at-bat stint with San Francisco was enough for the team to cut ties with him, and yet they’re turning to an older, likely more expensive version of Garko.
How about internal candidate Travis Ishikawa? Ishikawa is a genius with the glove, at least according to 2009 UZR numbers (which needs the small sample size caveat), and at only 26 still has a chance to contribute with his bat. Indeed, he has a platoon split against right-handers similar to Huff. He doesn’t have the upside against them that Huff brings, but at the major league minimum salary, will provide far more bang for the buck than Huff.
For a club focused on improving it’s offense, though, Ishikawa wasn’t a logical choice. Plus, at the league minimum and just 25, the team has a fallback option should Huff fall flat on his face, like he did after being traded to Detroit for the end of the 2009 season. (San Francisco also has John Bowker in Triple-A, where he hit .352/.469/.652 against right-handers last year.)
Speaking of defense, by signing Huff, the club may have inadvertently improved the team’s defense. The Huff signing moves DeRosa to left field, where DeRosa boasts a career UZR/150 of -1.1 (59 G) as opposed to -6.5 at third (311 G). (DeRosa posted a 21.6 UZR/150 in right field over 160 games.)
At the end of the day, while Huff may end up providing a return on investment above and beyond the $3 million, the deal just goes to show that GM Brian Sabean and Co. still don’t understand that throwing money at veterans doesn’t mean you’re improving the club.