The Aubrey Huff Dilemma

In October of 2010 when the San Francisco Giants were in the middle of their World Series run, Giants fan, giddy with the unlikely success of their team, but also aware of the impressive core of young talent around which that team was built, began dreaming of a team that could both win in 2010 and stay in contention and even pick up a few more championships during the following years. It is easy to describe the moment that dream crashed down into reality as the one in May of 2011 when Buster Posey suffered a terrible leg injury ending his 2011 season and raising serious questions about whether or not he would be able to ever be a full time championship quality catcher again.

While Posey’s injury was devastating, and may well have cost the Giants a post-season berth in 2011, the more damaging event for the Giants future occurred in spring training of 2011 when the Giants resigned Aubrey Huff to a two year contract worth around $20 million. This contract was not terrible, as it was only for two years, but it demonstrated both an attitude and an approach to building a team that were very damaging for the Giants. By spring of 2011, Huff had earned a reputation as a player respected by his teammates and beloved by Giants fans. He was a veteran who, after spending several years, 2002-4 and 2008, as one of baseball’s most under appreciated sluggers, was picked up by the Giants before the 2010 season. The Giants $3 million investment paid off handsomely as Huff had one of his best years ever hitting .290/.385/.506. He capped off a strong post-season with an extraordinary bunt in the final game of the World Series that contributed to the Giants winning rally in that game.

Going into 2011, Huff was a 34 year old coming off his best season ever who, other than a strong 2008, had not been an impact offensive force since 2004. The Giants decision to sign him was defensible, but it still seemed as if it was based on looking backwards rather than forwards. Although the Giants could not have been expected to foresee Huff’s dramatic decline in 2011, when he hit only .246/.306/.370, they must have recognized that Huff’s 2010 was at least something of an aberration.

The other major problem with the Huff signing was it contributed to undermining two of the Giants biggest strengths, their roster flexibility and their youth. Keeping Huff at first base in 2011 blocked the Giants top prospect, Brandon Belt, from having a real chance to prove himself in the big leagues. Belt, who was widely seen as having a disappointing season as a 23 year old rookie last year, actually hit slightly better than Huff in 2011 posting a .225/.306/.412 line while bouncing between San Francisco and Fresno.

Keeping Huff on the roster, and in the starting lineup, on the hope that he has another good season left would be a mistake if all it did was block Brandon Belt from getting a chance to prove himself in 2012, but putting Huff at first base will have a negative impact on two other young Giants. Brett Pill is old for a prospect, but because of his power from the right side and ability to play both first and second base, could be an intriguing and useful player if utilized properly. Additionally, although the Giants hope that Buster Posey will be fully recovered from his injury, he will probably not be able to catch every game and also has played first base in the past. If Posey could play first more, Hector Sanchez, a top Giants catching prospect could fill in behind the plate. If, however, Huff is the full time first baseman, Belt, Pill and Sanchez or Posey will lose playing time. If Huff hits like he did in 2008 or 2010 that will be ok, but it is unlikely that he will.

Huff’s contract means that if he is on the team he will likely start and bat in the middle of the lineup, further dragging down an already weak offense. If Huff does not play, it is likely that the Giants will get more production out of Belt, Pill and Sanchez who will pick up most of the playing time that would have gone to Huff. Huff, however, as a well paid 35 year old coming off a bad season, is not an easy player to move. The Giants are thus faced with a very difficult dilemma, either release or receive very little in exchange for a key player from their 2010 championship, or give in to the likelihood of getting very little offensive production out of first base. This is not an easy choice, and a comeback year from Huff would solve the problem nicely, but hoping for an unlikely outcome is not a great strategy. Similarly, when it comes to building championship teams ruthlessness is generally more valuable than sentimentality, and the Giants should act accordingly.