The Giants will begin the hot-stove season with more than $40 million in additional payroll commitments, one fewer starting pitcher, and a crowd in the outfield that could precipitate a trade or two.
Among their three players with the ability to opt out of their contracts before Monday’s deadline, only left-hander Sean Manaea chose to leave money on the table. Manaea, betting that he can improve on his $12.5 million salary on the open market, elected free agency. Outfielder Michael Conforto, who didn’t have the platform year he envisioned, declined his right to opt out of an $18 million salary and will return next season. So will right-hander Ross Stripling, who told reporters in September that he intended to finish out a contract that will pay him $12.5 million in 2024.
Along with the $10 million club option that the Giants exercised on right-hander Alex Cobb, the option decisions clarify where the Giants stand in terms of payroll as they enter an offseason in which they are expected to bid aggressively for top free agents.
The Giants have a little more than $100 million committed to nine players: Conforto, Stripling, Cobb, outfielder Mitch Haniger, DH/infielder Wilmer Flores, right-hander Anthony DeSclafani, right-hander Luke Jackson, left-hander Taylor Rogers and right-hander Logan Webb. They’re also forecasted to spend roughly $28 million if they tender contracts to all six of their arbitration-eligible players: third baseman J.D. Davis, second baseman Thairo Estrada, first baseman LaMonte Wade Jr., outfielder Austin Slater, outfielder Mike Yastrzemski, and right-hander Tyler Rogers.
Assuming that they intend to spend at least as much as their $185 million payroll this past season, that should leave them plenty of flexibility as they make their pitch to superstar Shohei Ohtani, right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto, outfielder Cody Bellinger, and others in a free-agent cohort that offers few true difference makers.
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In terms of the luxury tax line, which Giants chairman Greg Johnson has said the club will not make a habit of crossing, their total estimated commitments including average annual value of major-league contracts, player benefits, minor-league salaries and other inputs stands at roughly $165 million — which would leave them a little more than $70 million to spend before they’d bump up against the first threshold of $237 million.
Their future flexibility is wide open, though. Webb is the only Giant under contract past 2025.
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Conforto’s decision was the fence sitter among the group. The 30-year-old outfielder hit .239/.334/.384 with a 99 OPS+ and was worth 0.7 bWAR while acknowledging that his defensive skills weren’t up to his previous career standards. He might have bet on himself, given the paucity of hitters on the open market and his past production with the New York Mets prior to missing the 2022 season while rehabbing from shoulder surgery. But Scott Boras clients seldom misread the market, so Conforto will return and hope to put himself in a better position to land a multiyear contract a year from now.
“I’m excited to be back and can’t wait to get to work,” Conforto said via text message, adding that he was enthused by the hiring of manager Bob Melvin. “I’ve only heard great things from players and coaches who have worked with him. I know the rest of the guys are pumped as well.”
Conforto instantly becomes the Giants’ highest-paid player in 2024, ahead of Haniger’s $17 million salary. But his return presents more of a personnel challenge than a budgetary one. If the Giants retain Yastrzemski and Slater, they would appear to return a full outfield — a less than ideal situation for a team that must get younger and more athletic to run down more balls in the gaps. The Giants are expected to join the bidding for Bellinger and they are known to be aggressive suitors for Jung-hoo Lee, the 25-year-old Kiwoom Heroes center fielder who is widely viewed as KBO’s top player.
Assuming that the Giants do not shock the baseball world and sign Ohtani, it’s possible that Conforto could slide into the outfield/lefty DH role formerly occupied by Joc Pederson. It’s also possible that Conforto could be part of a trade package, perhaps one in which the Giants pay down some of his salary to enhance their return. Davis, Wade, Slater and Yastrzemski also could be part of trade discussions this winter.
Conforto posted an .824 OPS in seven seasons with the Mets and his bat carried the Giants for a time in May. Even when it became apparent that he wouldn’t produce at his previous level, he appeared to be headed back to the open market. But Conforto hit the last of his 15 home runs on Aug. 13 and then missed nearly three weeks because of a strained left hamstring. Upon his return, he wasn’t able to spark the Giants’ deeply slumping offense. Conforto slugged just .270 over his final 23 games.
Manaea’s option decision was easier. The left-hander rebounded from a disastrous start that included a 7.54 ERA in his first eight games (six starts), including a rough outing in the 7,500-foot elevation at Mexico City, all of which led to his demotion from the rotation to a bulk relief role. The 31-year-old thrived in relief, holding opponents to a .216 average out of the bullpen. He didn’t allow a home run over a span of 53 2/3 innings from May 22 to Aug. 21.
When the Giants finally returned Manaea to a conventional starting role, a decision that both president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi and former manager Gabe Kapler both acknowledged they probably waited too long to make, the left-hander went 2-1 with a 2.25 ERA, 0.92 WHIP and 18/2 K/BB ratio in four starts. Manaea also maintained his career-best fastball velocity all season long, likely putting him in line to attract multiyear offers on the open market.
As a result, Manaea won’t be reunited with Melvin for the third time in his career after pitching for him in Oakland and San Diego.
The Giants must bolster a rotation that lacks established and reliably healthy options behind Webb. Stripling will look to rebound from a disastrous season in which he posted an 0-5 record and a 5.36 ERA in 22 games (11 starts) and complained about being stashed on the “phantom IL.” They also cannot be sure what they’ll get from DeSclafani, who was limited to five starts in 2022 because of ankle surgery and struggled to a 4.88 ERA in 19 games (18 starts) this past season before he was shut down because of a forearm/elbow flexor strain. And although Cobb has given the Giants a much better return on their free-agent investment, the 36-year-old right-hander will be out until at least May after undergoing hip flexor surgery last week.
Yamamoto, Sonny Gray and Blake Snell will be the top free-agent pitching options as the Giants seek to build a bridge between Webb and a group of talented young pitchers that include Kyle Harrison, Keaton Winn, Tristan Beck and Mason Black.
(Top photo of Michael Conforto: David Berding / Getty Images)