SAN FRANCISCO — When a baseball team enters a rebuilding phase, the front office typically does everything in its power to tear up the foundation and start from scratch.
As the Giants look to identify pieces of the franchise’s future core, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi has elected to bring back one of the pillars of the old guard.
Outfielder Hunter Pence, 36, has signed a one-year deal worth $3 million with incentives to return to the Giants as the two sides agreed to terms shortly before pitchers and catchers are due to report to Scottsdale, Ariz. for spring training.
Pence can earn up to $5.25 million if he remains on the roster for at least 135 days and reaches 600 plate appearances. To clear a roster spot for Pence, the Giants designated recently acquired pitcher Luis Madero for assignment.
“We’re excited to welcome Hunter back to the organization”, Zaidi said in a team release. “He provides our club with a great veteran presence and his leadership will be a big asset for our younger players. Hunter’s addition creates depth on our roster and will provide Gabe with a valuable option against left-handed pitching.”
The decision to give Pence guaranteed money and a part-time role will certainly raise eyebrows, but the young outfielders he’ll compete with for playing time this spring are elated for his return.
“He’s super genuine in every aspect of his life and I’m excited to work with him again because he’s going to push everyone to be better which is exactly what we want and what we need here,” Austin Slater said.
Slater, 27, is nearly a decade younger than Pence and still has fewer than 500 career at-bats in parts of three major league seasons. Zaidi spoke Thursday about the desire to create realistic paths to the Opening Day roster for the team’s less experienced players, but Pence’s addition will complicate matters for players with minor league options such as Slater, Jaylin Davis and Chris Shaw.
The battle for playing time now features another familiar face, but Pence’s former and now current teammates believe the Giants will be better off because he’s back in the fold.
“He was a guy that was really good to young guys when he was here two years ago and he’s somebody to show you the ropes and show you the right way to play the game,” Shaw said. “That’s invaluable and I’m really excited to have him back.”
After Pence’s future was in doubt following a challenging 2018 season with the Giants in which he posted a .226 average and .590 OPS, the veteran outfielder revamped his swing and displayed his commitment to a comeback with a stint playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic.
In lieu of retiring, Pence signed a minor league deal with his hometown Texas Rangers last offseason and went on to earn a spot on the American League All-Star team with an outstanding first half. Injuries limited Pence to just 28 games after the All-Star break, but he finished the year with a .327 average and 1.015 OPS against left-handed pitchers.
The Giants’ expectation is that Pence will form a platoon in left field, likely with left-handed slugger Alex Dickerson, and be a valuable resource in a clubhouse that will still feature several young outfielders. Some rebuilding teams are wary of bringing veterans into spring camp to compete for playing time, but Giants catcher Buster Posey believes even the longest-tenured players can take inspiration from Pence’s comeback story.
“He was putting up some big numbers before then so I’m interested to pick his brain and see what adjustments he made,” Posey said.
Zaidi said Thursday the Giants have been cautious to commit to adding a full-time starter to the mix in the outfield because the organization is determined to hold extended auditions for players who haven’t received regular at-bats in the majors.
Zaidi felt that tendering 2019 Willie Mac Award winner Kevin Pillar a contract would have restricted opportunities for players such as Steven Duggar and Mike Yastrzemski in center field because Pillar is still an everyday outfielder. Adding Pence, however, is different because the financial commitment is nominal and he won’t take away opportunities against right-handed pitchers.
It’s unlike a rebuilding team to make additions such as Pence and minor league free-agent Pablo Sandoval when the club needs to focus to the future, but the Giants feel as if both veterans fit niche roles on a 26-man roster. Sandoval proved he’s a valuable, versatile asset as a pinch-hitter and corner infielder last season while Pence used an overhauled swing to demolish left-handed pitchers.
The Giants’ next core won’t be built on the shoulders of Sandoval, Pence or even Posey, but the team does believe it’s important to establish a strong clubhouse culture during a transitional phase. And when it comes to leadership, few players bring more to the table than Pence.
“We all know Hunter’s history,” Posey said. “He’s one of the best teammates that anybody will ever have and his enthusiasm for baseball is contagious.”