Pondering the Panda

A few days ago, it was reported that San Francisco Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval is seeking a five year $100 million contract either with his current team or with a new team when he becomes a free agent after this season. Unfortunately for the Panda, as the slugging third baseman is generally known, this news has become public during a season in which through his first 25 or so games, Sandoval is hitting less than .200 with only 2 home runs, numbers that are much worse than Sandoval's career numbers, .298/.351/.476, through 2013.

Obviously, if Sandoval does not begin hitting soon, he will not get anything near what he is asking for on the free agent market, but if he turns around his season, he should be able to get around that much. Sandoval may not seem like a $20 million a year player. He has been erratic mixing very good years like 2009 and 2011 with off years like 2010. Sandoval is also probably more known for is colorful nicknames and often unsuccessful efforts to control his weight than for anything he has done on the field, but he is clearly one of the game's best young hitters. From 2009, his first year as a full time big leaguer through 2013, Sandoval 43rd in WAR among all non-pitchers. This may not sound too impressive, but, Sandoval is still only 27. Only five players are younger than Sandoval and have more WAR during those years.

Sandoval has also been part of two World Series winning teams. In 2012, he was perhaps the Giants best hitter in the post-season, winning the World Series MVP and hitting three home runs in the first game of the Giants sweep of the World Series that year. Those things make him very appealing for teams looking to sign a high impact free agent. If he is looking for a deal of only five years, almost regardless of the annual salary involved, he will be an even more appealing free agent candidate. Although he has been around for a while, Sandoval is possibly only now coming in to his prime years.

A five year contract will secure Sandoval for the seasons when he is from 28 to 32 years old. This may include the beginning of his decline, but only the very beginning. Robinson Cano, the best player in last off-season's free agent class is beginning his ten year deal with the Mariners at age 31. Thus, Sandoval is in the enviable position of becoming a free agent while he is still relatively young.

Because of his age, and his sometimes surprising defensive ability, the team that signs Sandoval will not have to plan on using him as a full time DH at any point during his potential five year contract. Sandoval is far from a gold glove third-baseman, but he is not terrible at the hot corner. He is also a reasonable first baseman who can play there if needed. Many of the big free agent signings of last off-season including Cano, as well as Brian McCann, Jacoby Ellsbury and Shin-Soo Choo will likely play at least 25%, and in the case of McCann considerably more of their games, at DH before their contracts are finished. It will not be necessary to use the Panda that way over the next five years.

Sandoval may also be fortunate in that baseball's wealthiest team, the Yankees, will likely need a third baseman next year and will be very enticed by a still relatively young proven hitter who can play adequate third base. Sandoval would fit in well on the Yankees where he would become one of the team's best, and youngest, players while also bringing a temperament to the team that would help remake the team's image in the post-Jeter years. Sandoval's current team, the Giants, will also want to keep Sandoval as they have demonstrated a willingness to resign their own free agents, even at or above market value, as shown by the contracts given to Tim Lincecum and Hunter Pence in the days almost immediately following the conclusion of the post-season last fall.

Sandoval, however, is not without risk. Despite being a very good player over the last two years, he has been in slow decline since 2011. That decline appears to be continuing this season as the Panda has gotten off to a very slow start. This season is only one month old, but Sandoval has to find a way to begin hitting and to stay healthy or else he will see his value on the free agent market plummet significantly. Sandoval is in a position to play the current free agent environment extremely well because he is fortunate enough to become a free agent at a young age and smart enough to ask for a lot of money rather than for many years, but he has to hit for the next five months or else it will not add up to a big contract for the Panda.