Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 1/18/12
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A year ago, the San Francisco Giants were coming off a shocking World Series victory. A curious side story was that the 2010 season was disappointing on an individual level for their young third baseman Pablo Sandoval, who ended up getting benched in the playoffs to make room for the likes of Juan Uribe and Edgar Renteria. A post-World Series picture of Sandoval settling down in front of a massive ice cream sundae did little to ease concerns about his weight issues. With the leverage of having won the Series “without him,” the team basically ordered him to get his conditioning under control.

Fast forward to this week: while the Giants failed to make the 2011 playoffs, Sandoval himself is coming off of a great “bounce back” season. The same team that seemed to have so many concerns about Sandoval just a year ago, bought out his arbitration years with a three-year, $17.15 million contract. Are the Giants getting a steal or taking on risk unnecessarily?

Sandoval is a tremendous young hitter. He does not walk that often (although for his major-league career he is just a bit below league average), but has excellent contact skills and showed even better power in 2011 (.237 ISO) than he did in 2009 (.226 ISO). Oliver projects him to hit .312/.362/.537 (.383 wOBA) in 2012, which is about 30-35 runs above average over a full season. While his fielding at third base has, to say the least, been questionable in the past, he looked better out there this season, and most metrics reflect that, if you are in to that sort of thing.

Sandoval’s overall “true talent” value depends on what you think of his defense. For a full season, if his fielding is horrible (say, 10 runs below average), he still projects at between four and five wins. Even if you think he is a terrible defender and can only play three-fourths of a season, he would still between a three and four win player. Even in that “worst case” scenario for his defense and less-than-perfect health, the Giants are getting a great deal compared to the average market value. (Just for the record — I think Sandoval is probably better than that, I am just giving the “worst case” scenario to illustrate a point quickly.) Of course, that is what you would expect given that Sandoval was only in his first arbitration-eligible off-season, so the basis for comparison and evaluation of this deal is a bit different.

The reported breakdown of the contract is for $3.2 million in 2012, $5.7 million in 2013, and $8.25 million in 2014. While much of the usual interest in contracts is how the money lines up with expected performance, some of the drama is taken out of this one by our own Matt Swartz, whose model for arbitration salaries predicted that if Sandoval went to arbitration in 2012, he would likely get… $3.2 million. Contract for future arbitration years are difficult to judge since arbitrators look at comparable players with equal service time and numbers that are generally, shall we say, less than “enlightened.” Matt’s model at least does the work for the first season. Rather than trying to extrapolate from that and end up quibbling over a million dollars here and there, it seems to me that the 2013 and 2014 salaries are roughly in line with what one would expect he would get in arbitration given the $3.2 million dollar projection for 2012.

If the deal guarantees roughly what Sandoval would receive in arbitration, then who “wins” the deal? From one simple perspective, it would be Sandoval. Why guarantee basically the same money he would have received in the future by going year-to-year? While Sandoval may have worked hard on his conditioning last off-season, it does seem odd a professional athlete would need that much motivation to stay in shape. I do not want to veer to far in the direction of psychological speculation here. Suffice it to say that if Sandoval does not stay on top of things, it could very well be an issue down the road that would effect both his fielding (looked pretty good this season, but has been poor in the past) and hitting.

Moreover, Sandoval had injury issues that limited him to only 117 games this season. In one way, that makes his 5.5 WAR performance that much more impressive given that it was done in about three-fourths of a season. In another way, though, one has to be at least somewhat concerned about a hitter having surgery on his hand, and whether this sort of thing might be a problem that crops up again. So from the negative side (from the Giants’ perspective), one could argue that they are taking on unnecessary risk by guaranteeing Sandoval what it looks like he might get anyway in arbitration if they were to go year-to-year with him.

However, things are not quite that simple. The arbitration projections are based on how arbitration hearings have turned out in the past for players with Sandoval’s record as of this season. However, the 2012 projections have him hitting much more like 2011 than 2010, and 2010 was also taken into account. In general, Sandoval is still young enough (he will not turn 26 until August) that most of his components on offense may still be improving, both in his areas of strength (power) and relative weakness (walk rate). Assuming he stays healthy and the 2011 injury does not portend an injury-laden future, the Giants would also have reason to think they might be subject to a much larger bill if they went year-to-year with Sandoval in 2013 and 2014.

I suppose I could come up with a definitive “winner” and “loser” of this agreement if I were up to pretending as if this were an exact science. It seems to me that both sides gained something — Sandoval gets a guarantee in case he suffers a severe injury that wrecks his career or something of that sort, while the Giants get cost certainty on a young player who could get even more expensive in arbitration if he repeats his recent performance. Both sides also gave something up — the Giants are taking a chance on guaranteeing money to a player who has had past troubles with conditioning, fielding, and a wrist injury, while Sandoval is giving up the chance at paydays that might be significantly bigger. If both sides are both giving and taking, isn’t that the definition of a fair deal?

Sometimes the truth, unlike watching Pablo Sandoval hit, is boring.

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