San Francisco Giants: The Javier Lopez Conundrum


August 29, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Javier Lopez (49) pitches in the ninth inning against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The offseason is here, so let’s stroll down the San Francisco Giants’ offseason checklist.

Lock up Hunter Pence–check. Bring back Tim Lincecum–check. And, well, that’s about it for the notable internal options.

As for the secondaries …

Barry Zito’s hefty contract came off San Francisco’s books over the weekend. Andres Torres is also a goner. If the Giants choose to buyout Ryan Vogelsong for $300,000, he could be a goner as well.

Meanwhile, Chad Gaudin could find his way back into a messy competition for a rotation spot. But that’s a big “could.” Carpal-tunnel syndrome caused Gaudin to miss the final month or so of the season. Plus, general manager Brian Sabean has some bigger priorities to sift through before revisiting Gaudin.

We’re missing someone here: Javier Lopez.

Let’s see, all Lopez did was muster a career-best 1.83 ERA in 39.1 innings. Since Lopez is one of those lefty specialists, he doesn’t qualify in the ERA department, for relievers. So I dialed the minimum innings pitched back to 30 and sure enough, Lopez is right up there, earning a 17th-place ranking.

We’ll get to some more tidbits later, but yeah, Lopez had a darn good year. And … a good year, when you’re a pending free agent, paves the path for a big payday.

That leads us to our first question.

May 5, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants pitcher Javier Lopez (49) prepares to deliver a pitch against the Los Angeles Dodgers in the eighth inning at AT

How Much Will Lopez Sign For?

Lopez is headed towards a sizable payday. Except, you know, he’s not going to land a Robinson Cano payday. Or Jacoby Ellsbury payday. Or Shin-Soo Choo. You get where I’m going with this; yes, he’ll get paid, but let’s be realistic.

So, what type of money are we talking?

Naturally, revisiting some previous signings of the same variety seems like a good starting point. For that, we’ll turn to MLB Trade Rumors’ Transaction Tracker to dig up past signings.

I set the time period from Nov. 1, 2012, to April 1, 2013, and made sure we’re only dealing with relief pitchers.

The results? Pretty skimpy.

There are a couple of southpaws that could potentially serve as a basis. Craig Breslow is one. The current Boston Red Sox southpaw signed a two-year, $6.25 million contract last winter, with the second year being a team option.

Putting aside his horrid World Series (54.00 ERA in a third-of-an-inning), Breslow mustered a fantastic regular season. In 59.2 innings of work, he pitched to a career-best 1.81 ERA. So for just less than $4 million, the Red Sox dug up quite a nifty bargain.

Now, there are two flaws in comparing Lopez to Breslow. One is that Breslow can pitch to both righties and lefties (he actually faced more righties than lefties in 2013, and did better against them), whereas Lopez is strictly summoned for lefties. And as you might suspect, flaw No. 2 is a byproduct of flaw No. 1: Breslow thus eats up more innings–20.1 more, to be exact (in 2013, of course).

Oct 24, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox relief pitcher Craig Breslow (32) reacts as he is relieved during the seventh inning of game two of the MLB baseball World Series against the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Our second southpaw in the sample pool who draws parallels to Breslow is Los Angeles Dodgers lefty J.P. Howell, who signed a one-year, $2.85 million deal last winter. He logs lot of innings–for a reliever, that is–isn’t restricted to just lefties and had a heck of a season for merely $2.85 million. Yep, that sounds a lot like Breslow.

That aforementioned heck of a season goes like this: 2.18 ERA (for some peculiar reason, Baseball-Reference has it at 2.02, FanGraphs at 2.18), 62 innings, 2.89 FIP, 7.84 K/9 and 0.7 WAR.

So how do Breslow and Howell help us predict what type of dough Lopez will garner this winter? Well, frankly, they don’t help much. Lopez is a specialist, Breslow and Howell aren’t. Simple enough.

You can throw Jeremy Affeldt (three years, $18 million) and Sean Burnett (two years, $8 million), both of whom were free agents last offseason, into the same class as Breslow and Howell–dynamic lefties not restricted to just lefty-hitting batters.

However, in terms of value, Lopez’s 0.8 WAR narrowly surpasses those of Breslow (0.7) and Howell (0.7). Burnett and Affeldt were both injured in 2013, so we’ll go off of their 2012 WARs (both 0.9), which are slightly better than Lopez’s mark. The catch, of course, is that Breslow, Howell, Affeldt and Burnett all notch Lopez in the innings pitched department by…a lot.

One lefty that does fall in Lopez’s category is current St. Louis Cardinal Randy Choate (three years, $7.5 million). He is indeed a lefty specialist. And the only flaw we can dig up in comparing Choate and Lopez is that Choate is 38 years old, while Lopez is 36. Otherwise, they’re fairly close, with Lopez being nearly a win better since 2010.

So, taking everything above into consideration, let’s go with three years, $16 million for Lopez. Since the southpaw is expected to seek a multi-year deal, the three-year deal above should be right up his alley.

Aug 9, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Javier Lopez (49) pitches the ball against the Baltimore Orioles during the tenth inning at AT

Thinking Back to the Trade Deadline …

GM Brian Sabean faces a sticky situation because he and his staff opted not to trade Lopez before the July 31 trade deadline, when the situation couldn’t have been more ideal.

The Giants were well out of the playoff race. Their farm system could’ve (and still could) used some new blood. Perhaps most notably, Lopez wasn’t needed on a team focused on the future, not getting out of jams in the later innings of meaningless August and September games. That’s where some of San Francisco’s younger arms would (and did) gain valuable experience.

Suffice to say, the stage was set for a trade. Nothing came to fruition, though. Sure, there were a couple of rumors, but, you know, rumors are rumors.

In Sabean’s defense, Lopez probably wouldn’t have fetched the Giants a top prospect. They did try to pry the hard-throwing Danny Salazar away from the Cleveland Indians. That was a good joke, as Salazar is one of those top prospects with an overpowering fastball complemented by a nasty slider. The Indians weren’t going to dangle him.

At this point, you can see where Sabean’s hands are tied. The notion of not shipping Lopez away before the trade deadline, letting him free this winter and getting nothing but a sincere “goodbye” in return would indeed be rendered a wasted opportunity to add to a thin farm system.

No, such a scenario wouldn’t bog the Giants down for years to come, but yeah, it’s certainly something to keep in mind.

Sep 25, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey (28) hits a single against the Los Angeles Dodgers during the fourth inning at AT

What If the Giants Don’t Project to Contend?

This is an interesting scenario. Retaining Lopez wouldn’t handcuff the Giants financially, but he’s one of those players that fits really well on winning teams, yet doesn’t have much of a role on losing teams because of his niche: getting lefties, and only lefties, out.

Don’t get me wrong, Lopez has been on some pretty bad teams in his 11-year career. Heck, the 2013 Giants are a perfect example. But in a perfect world, he’s the missing piece to an already good team/bullpen.

Are the Giants one of those teams?

Well, that’s a tough question to answer with a whole offseason ahead. The Giants could shake up their roster a bit to improve upon their 76-86 record in 2013. Or … maybe they won’t. Only time will answer that question.

Just for sake of it, though, let’s go ahead and assume that the Giants have a relatively quiet winter. Pence and Lincecum will be back. But there’s a glaring hole in left field and a couple rotation spots up for grabs, too.

There will be some improvements that just happen because, well, that’s just how things work: Buster Posey should bounce back after limping to the finish line in 2013. If healthy, Pablo Sandoval is chasing a contract. Brandon Belt’s development should continue. Angel Pagan will be healthy; so will an aging Marco Scutaro–at least temporarily.

Lots of “ifs,” yes, but none of those ideas are very far-fetched, nor do they require the Giants to open their checkbooks.

Back to the point, though: If the Giants don’t project to contend, there’s little reason to retain Lopez. Turn it over to the youngsters.

Sep 19, 2013; New York, NY, USA; San Francisco Giants relief pitcher Javier Lopez (49) itches during the ninth inning against the New York Mets at Citi Field. Giants won 2-1. Mandatory Credit: Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

Looking Ahead

When dishing out a contract worth more than a penny, it’s always wise to look ahead. No, Lopez isn’t about to slap his signature on a four or five-year deal.

Still, let’s look ahead, and to do that, we’ll head straight to the projections, which … aren’t so rosy.

Observe (2014 projections courtesy of Steamer):

ERA: 3.28
BB/9: 3.45
K/9: 7.46
BABIP: .303
WAR: 0.1

In a nutshell, Lopez is projected to take a couple of mighty large steps back.

Which has some credence. Since Steamer projections factor in the advanced metrics, there are a couple of obvious theories for Lopez’s projected downfall.

One would be his 2.41 FIP–a good number, yes, but look more towards the disparity between his 2013 ERA (1.82) and FIP. Another one could be his xFIP (2.92), which is more than a full run higher than his ERA. Again, look at the disparity, not just the raw number.

The sneaky thing about both FIP and xFIP is that they can gauge a pitcher’s future performance to some degree. In Lopez’s case, these two metrics foresee regression.

There’s the fancy explanation. Perhaps a more simpler way of putting it is that Lopez’s 2013 campaign screams “outlier.” He did, after all, put up career bests in ERA, FIP, xFIP, WAR, BABIP and K/9. And those are just the notables. Plus, the fact that Lopez had a career year at the age of 36 makes his performance in 2013 a bit more fishy.

So … Mix Steamer’s 2014 projections, his age (36) and the somewhat outlier of a 2013 season he had and some regression seems to be inevitable. How much? That’s up for debate. But the key word here, of course, is “regression.”