Giants Review: After rough 2018, Hunter Pence wants to play somewhere in 2019

Giants Review: After rough 2018, Hunter Pence wants to play somewhere in 2019

SAN FRANCISCO — In the down years, the Giants have shown a remarkable ability to send some of their fans away from the final games with positive vibes. Three years ago, Barry Zito faced Tim Hudson in a meaningless late-season game that garnered a lot of hype. Last year, Pablo Sandoval’s walk-off sent the Game 162 crowd home happy, and the Giants promised afterward that they would not repeat their failures (they nearly did). 

Hunter Pence has twice been involved. In 2013, Pence signed a massive contract, giving the front office plenty of positive headlines at the end of a season that ended without a playoff appearance. This season, the Giants sent Pence out with an ugly blowout loss to the Dodgers, but he gave an emotional speech and then rode off on a scooter. It was a memorable scene, and it also, unfortunately, served as one of the only highlights of Pence’s final year in orange and black. 

This was not how Pence wanted to go out, and he has vowed to remake his swing and try to win a job somewhere next spring. Even Pence, as positive a person as you’ll ever meet, would tell you there’s plenty of work to do after the way his 2018 season went. 

What Went Right: The final speech was another good one and the scooter ride was a fun moment, and on the field, Pence did finish with his best stretch of the season. He hit .308 over his final 10 games, with two homers, three doubles and five RBI. Manager Bruce Bochy vowed to play Pence every day on the final homestand, and he responded with three multi-hit games. 

From a purely physical standpoint, Pence, 35, is still impressive. He led the Giants with five balls hit at least 110 mph. No other member of the opening day lineup had more than one. Pence had an average sprint speed of 28.2 feet per second, which ranked fifth on the team, ahead of more noted speedsters like Chase d’Arnaud and Kelby Tomlinson. The 28.2 mark is well above the MLB average. 

What Went Wrong: This was, in every way, the worst statistical season of Pence’s career. He batted .226 with just four homers, and his .590 OPS was the lowest of his career by more than 100 points. Among NL players with at least 200 plate appearances, Pence had the fourth-worst on-base percentage (.258). He hit a groundball exactly 50 percent of the time when he put the ball in play; the hard chopper to short became an all too familiar part of his game. 

Pence sprained his right thumb in the opener and was put on the DL on April 20. He was hitting .172 at the time, and it was clear that the move would not have been made if he were performing better. He wasn’t reinstated until June 2, in part because the Giants were trying to figure out how to handle his rehab. It was start-and-stop in the minors as the front office waited for a way to slide Pence back onto the big league roster. During that time, he tried to make swing adjustments, but he went back to his old swing soon after returning to the big leagues. 

Contract Status: Pence is a free agent for the first time in his career. He just finished a five-year, $90 million deal that he signed right before he was set to hit the market in 2013. 

The Future: Pence, 35, wants to keep playing. He is currently in Los Angeles overhauling his swing with Doug Latta, a private instructor who helped Justin Turner and Mac Williamson, among others. He plans to play in Mexico or the Dominican Republic and he hopes that leads to a camp invite. Even after a year like this one, he may still find an opportunity. A young team could certainly use his presence in the clubhouse; this year, he nearly won the Willie Mac Award for the second time. The opportunity will not come in San Francisco. Neither side has officially ruled out a reunion, but the Giants plan to go in a different direction with their outfield. That ceremony last Sunday was about saying thank you, but it was also a chance to say goodbye. 

Pence is not done with the organization, though. The Giants hope to have him around when his playing days are over, and while Pence has shied away from any retirement talk, he looks as likely as any member of the title teams to be involved in some capacity for years to come. He met his wife, Alexis, here, and they truly seem to love the city. That scooter will be headed back towards AT&T Park at some point.

Sources: Madison Bumgarner, Dodgers have mutual interest in free agency

Sources: Madison Bumgarner, Dodgers have mutual interest in free agency

There wasn't a lot of time to soak in the sunny weather, but the Giants enjoyed their stay in San Diego. They made a creative trade that impressed rival clubs, added a pitcher they believe can break through, announced an innovative approach to a coaching staff, and by all accounts embraced the collaborative spirit that Farhan Zaidi wants in the front office and new manager Gabe Kapler is preaching to his staff.

But they also left staring at a potential nightmare scenario.

There is mutual interest between Madison Bumgarner and the Dodgers, sources told NBC Sports Bay Area this week, and the Dodgers met with Bumgarner's representatives at the MLB Winter Meetings. It's unclear if the Dodgers will satisfy the Giants ace's salary desires, but Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu are the top options left on the pitching market after a shockingly active week in San Diego, and LA would like to add to its rotation.

The Dodgers struck out on Gerrit Cole and Anthony Rendon on back-to-back days, and quickly pivoted to Bumgarner, as Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic first reported. While the Dodgers have seen Bumgarner's numbers dip in recent years, they still view him as a durable starter, someone who is young enough to be a contributor for years to come and can give them an innings-eater alongside Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw. And yes, they're well aware of what a blow such a move would be to the fan base of their main rivals.

Giants officials downplayed those concerns this week, repeatedly noting that they will build back up the right way and not be swayed by emotion. There was some skepticism about the Dodgers' true intentions, but sources say the interest is real, and that could put the Giants in a tough spot.

They met with Bumgarner's representation on Tuesday, and Zaidi said the next day that he remained engaged in conversations with the franchise's longtime ace. The price has gone higher than expected, and that's ultimately one of the main reasons Bumgarner might not end up with the Dodgers. But he also said repeatedly late in the year that his main priority as a free agent was finding a spot where he could win, and not many teams can offer a better shot at that than the one in LA.

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The Dodgers have limited their free-agent spending during their run to seven consecutive NL West titles. On the other side, the Giants have not yet spent more than $9 million on a free agent since Zaidi took over as president of baseball operations. Bumgarner's camp, per sources, wants to top the $100 million mark, making up for a below-market deal he signed as a 22-year-old.

Bumgarner has drawn interest from plenty of others this week, with the Angels mentioned as one potential home and the Twins known to be a strong suitor. It's unclear when he'll make a decision, but he certainly finds himself in a nice spot. The free-agent market has exploded, and he can count two longtime rivals among the teams still in the bidding for his services.

Giants announce changes to Oracle Park, move bullpens to outfield

Giants announce changes to Oracle Park, move bullpens to outfield

On the first day of the Winter Meetings, Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi joked that Brandon Belt might often be checking his phone these days for updates on exactly how much the Giants would be chopping out of Triples Alley. On Thursday the Giants finally made their new dimensions official, with changes that aren't all that drastic and still will keep Oracle Park as a pitchers' park with a deep alley in right-center.

It still will be difficult for left-handed hitters to yank the ball out in Triples Alley, but the Giants did change enough that offense should get a slight boost. 

With the bullpens moving from foul territory to the outfield, Triples Alley will be cut from 421 feet to 415. The wall will be five feet closer in left-center and eight feet closer in straightaway center. The bullpens will be situated in center field on either side of the garden that already exists out there. 

"Obviously it's something that started off really as a safety issue with some of what we've seen over the last couple of years, but there's going to be a fun baseball element," Zaidi said earlier this week. "We've done a lot of studies on how we think it's going to impact things but until you actually start playing games and the ball starts flying, you're never quite sure how it's going to go. It'll be a fun and exciting time."

It'll also be a much different look for relievers and fans who sit out in the bleachers. The Giants announced that several bleacher seats will directly overlook the bullpens and they will have two new standing-room terraces out there for fans. The garden in center field will also provide a direct view into the Giants' bullpen. 

[RELATED: Giants announce eight additions to coaching staff]

For the players, the bullpens will have padded chain link openings in the wall so they can watch the game. The centerfield wall will also be one foot shorter, going from eight to seven feet, which could aid a hitter or two every year but may also make it easier for the centerfielder to rob an opposing batter. 

The Giants expect a touch more offense from the new look, but as they ran studies in recent months, they discovered that the weather was actually the main factor in knocking down potential home runs. The heavy air will still be there at night, protecting pitchers and frustrating hitters. 

That'll be good news for Giants relievers. The press release continued one more bit of important news for that group. Both bullpens will have their own bathroom for players.