Why the Giants will soon part with their Panda


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No sooner had the final out of the 2014 World Series predictably found its way into Pablo Sandoval’s glove than the chatter over whether the Giants could sign such a lovable chordate commenced.

Let’s stop right there: They won’t. They’ll let him go gently and into the ether like Kate did Jack, like Diane did Sam, like George Michael did Andrew Ridgeley. After an interminable year of back and forth and an ocean of cash between them, it’s time for a clean break.

Sandoval, the switch-hitting, vacuum-gloved, before photo for any fat-melting miracle pill, is a homegrown Giant. Left off the team’s 2010 post-season roster due of lack of robustness—with the exception of around his midsection—Sandoval came back a little more lippy and a lot more light in 2011 and vowed to make amends for the club and his legacy. And he did.

While Sandoval has a bubbly career BA of .294 (beyond respectable, especially for a third baseman which has become the new catcher in the MLB—no production in the plate often excused by a sure glove) encompassing eight regular seasons, his real value according to his teammates and beat writers is the ability to galvanize a clubhouse. You gotta bring something to the table if you’re going to take so much from it—including leading the team in inning-ending double-plays (hitting into, not turning) three straight seasons. And he does. The verbose and kind Sandoval is nothing short of a rainbow bridge between the squad’s Latin-born populace and the other guys, most of whom hail from the dirty South and know about as much of the old Español to order the wrong kind of meat on their burrito—is it carne or asada I’m eating?

Sandoval seems to have an extra special clubhouse bond with one Hunter Pence. Pence similarly shows his scuffs during the regular season and has a proclivity for hitting ground ball flares into potential rally killers (though more fleet afoot, he often reaches first on a fielder’s choice). Like his Venezuelan bestie, Pence leads with words and backs it up with action in crunch time. Baseball, it can be said, is the most unlikely of team sports. When dug in to the batters box you’re as alone as an astronaut. When the ball misjudged sails overhead, suddenly you’re naked and afraid in front of 40k. But if you don’t have the right guys—a foxhole full of those equipped with an undergrad psych major’s sixth sense, a head cheerleader’s chutzpah and a mother’s soothing sweet nothings—you, and the team, are going to fall apart, quickly.

Chemistry is one of those awful words that gets batted around like a shuttlecock at a youth group picnic yet nobody can quite define it much less put a dollar value on it in the MLB. But it’s there. It’s there mightily. The Giants minus their chemistry are about five games worse than the Twins or Mariners in 2014. They’re a middling team in a bigger market with a fickle fan base which sells out because of the venue, stupid. If the home team isn’t keeping things close during the beer innings, most Giants faithful in their $120 seats comp’d by Salesforce are checking Urban Spoon whether Zero Zero or State Bird Provisions can still get them in before 9.

Panda is a key to that chemistry.

Yes, there is more good in him than a mouth full of chaw and a belly full of intangibles. There are Sandoval’s glorious hitting sprees in October. From setting the tone against the Tigers with a blast off heretofore untouchable Justin Verlander, to putting nearly every American League advance scout on food stamps because of his wanton ability to hit everything out of the strike zone and away from the dish thrown his way; somehow the same balls that are sucked up and regurgitated for two quick outs during the regular season bounce off his bendy slo-mo bat and into the proper holes during the second season, the one that matters.

Reborn clutch, Sandoval came off the bench in 2012 and 2014 to become one of the great World Series hitters of his time, perhaps all-time. And who would’ve thunk it?

Most likely, the Giants’ front office, that’s who.

The Sandoval Breakup has been in the works for more than a year. Like a couple who lives together and can’t quite figure out how to sort through their LPs, the kitchenware and those mystery boxes in the garage, the uncoupling has been a deliberate if not well-masked grind. Lincecum and Pence both said, “I may not be in love with you but I still love you even though you hog the covers” and took deals on the last days of the 2012 and 2013 seasons respectively to keep themselves off the market. Pablo got multiple similar sign-now and avoid-the-mess offers. He refused.

Lincecum shorted himself about four years with his two-year, $35 million deal. It might not have been a hometown price in the traditional sense, but 55’s pair of Cys have become dust magnets and both parties knew it was time for him to earn back that career-bookend six-year deal. Blame squeaky mechanics or drop in velocity, Big Time Timmy Jim goes as every Giants’ starting pitcher has over the last half-decade. Eat innings now, pay physically later. Lincecum, Cain and even Bumgarner have shorted their careers by a handful of exercised option years which in baseball terms is basically saying you’ll pass away at 85 instead of 90. Oh well. Dead arms by the mid-30s and a couple extra sunsets on the ranch in exchange for that throwing hand to dangle from the weight of three rings is a trade most starters would gladly make.

Pence was given his due and moved to the top third of outfield earners at five years, $90 million. He was also coming off a grandiose regular season for a club that had all but quit in July. That Pence spent August and September still battling, still carrying on and still cranking out hits and RBIs when the rest of the club—front office included—was making tee times earned him the Willie Mac award for most inspirational player as voted by the guy from the locker next to you and enough cash to buy a few dozen replacement scooters should his heart desire.

Pablo was offered and turned down three years for $40 million in the spring, which was fair money for a streaky but sure-footed third baseman who’s battled weight and consistency issues his entire career. The Giants have tried everything with Panda: From putting him in off-season detention making him eat his weight in Weight Watchers and sprinting laps up and down Camelback Mountain in Scottsdale, to keeping him away from his beloved Venezuelan winter ball and all the fixins’ (see: empanadas) that go with it, to monitoring diet and workouts during the regular season with the exacting eye of a former Duchess of York. None of this worked.

The Giants found through trial and error letting Pablo be Pablo just as they let Pence be Pence, is the only way to keep the big boy grinning.

That 48 won’t be back in Creamsicle® next spring will not be through lack of trying. The Giants will back exactly one Brinks truck to sign Sandoval. GM Brian Sabean’s sanguine notions that Pablo’s priority number one in the offseason isn’t, at least this time, just lip service. The front office has a history, to a fault, of rewarding those who’ve delivered in the post-season…well to the franchise’s financial detriment (see: Aubrey Huff and Marco Scutaro—both were delivered contracts in the form of a giant check and mylar balloons by the ghost of Ed McMahon after the ’10 and ’12 World Series). Sandoval is up and the Giants will offer him something to vaguely match Pence money, which is well more than they wanted to give and well more he could have demanded on the market if the Giants hadn’t an ace up their sleeve to throw against Pittsburgh in the Wild Card and then chugged along to bang down the door of history once more after that. Know this in the afterglow of the Champagne bath: the reigning world champs have $410 million in salary commitments for 2015 and beyond; only the Dodgers and Yankees have more on the books.

Because of this, the team won’t go further than they have to and they definitely won’t go full-retard Josh Hamilton Giancarlo Stanton money for the crowd-pleaser; which is not nearly what Pablo thinks he wants or deserves. His agent, Gustavo Vasquez, comes off brash and small-time if not crooked and his life’s big payout comes in the form of an affable weeble wobble. I don’t trust Vasquez has got Panda’s best interest in mind, not with that kind of one-time payday on the line. But I’m not the one that matters. Larry Baer and Sabean do. And they don’t seem to trust Pablo’s surrogates any farther than they can throw their third Commissioner’s Trophy off the club level mezzanine.

For a guy who will likely be splitting time at third with a prospect three years into his next deal, Sandoval knows he’ll be set for life whether he stays or whether he goes and deserves to get paid for services rendered. But sometimes, the worst decisions can be seen without the benefit of hindsight. Those in his ear telling him the Giants are trying to pull a fast one, that he can do better, get more somewhere else—are winning. Else the deal would be done by now. It could have gotten done in March. It could have gotten done in July. It could have gotten done before his ski goggles had a chance to defog in October. But it didn’t—and there’s nothing to say it’ll get done during potentially record-setting winter talks where the price to play has already been set north of $300 million and the franchise from 4th and King traditionally bows out of bidding wars.

The Giants have Andrew Susac who looks ready to convert from catcher and play every day, 20-year-old Christian Arroyo who can play short or third and Adam Duvall who’s ready to go now as a first or third baseman. One of these three could spell or replace Panda outright. Sandoval knows this. He also knows there’s only one man on the planet who can move more endangered species merch than the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and PETA combined.

What Panda may not know is what everyone who’s ever been through a breakup can tell him now: It doesn’t get better with someone else. The same problems just wear a different shade of lipstick and a new dress. He says his heart is in San Francisco, but as the song goes, hearts are meant to be left there.