Shohei Ohtani

Giants offseason preview: Ohtani, Yamamoto are focus in free agency

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SAN FRANCISCO -- When the Giants arrived at the annual MLB general managers meetings in 2018, they did so without a leader for their baseball operations department, but that didn't last long. A few hours in, the organization named Farhan Zaidi the president of baseball operations, signaling a new direction.

Zaidi's first offseason in charge was just about entirely spent working on the edges of the roster, but as spring training approached, he flew to Las Vegas with Larry Baer and Bruce Bochy, quietly jumping right into the middle of the Bryce Harper sweepstakes. Five years later, there is nothing stealthy about the Giants' plans. 

The Giants have talked openly about the need to add marquee talent, and there are two players who stand far ahead of the rest heading into the winter. Shohei Ohtani tops every big-market wish list, but the Giants have Japanese right-hander Yoshinobu Yamamoto right at the top with Ohtani.

Yamamoto is viewed as such a high priority that Zaidi flew to Japan last month in the midst of his search for a new manager. On "Giants Talk" early last month, he called the 25-year-old "one of the top starting pitchers in the world."

"I know it sounds like an exaggeration, but it's not," he said. 

Yamamoto's final start in Japan further validated that claim. He struck out 14 and threw 138 pitches in a complete game victory in the Japan Series, a performance that showed why teams expect the bidding to reach $200 million. Giants officials have been operating with that belief, with one saying last month he thinks the price will be "bananas ... way more than people think," but it's a pursuit they're comfortable with. 

The final price on Ohtani will more than double that, and while the Giants are viewed by opposing executives as one of the favorites, the rival Los Angeles Dodgers enter the offseason as the perceived frontrunner. 

The Giants came up short on Harper five years ago in part because they were unwilling to blow the field away, but acquiring either Japanese superstar likely will require that kind of mindset. It's an uncomfortable place to reside, but at this point, the Giants seem to have little choice. While ownership has remained patient -- Zaidi is operating with a new two-year contract extension -- the fan base has not.

The Giants still strongly believe their best path is developing homegrown stars, and Zaidi was encouraged by the influx of talent in 2023. But there's little doubt that it's time to actually win one of the offseason competitions.

"Having one or two players the fans really identify with, the guys that [have] the jerseys that you see in the stands, I completely understand that," Zaidi said on "Giants Talk." "I think some of the best organizations are the ones that develop those players internally and we're hoping some of the guys that we brought up this year can be those types of guys, but we can't rule out bringing that player in from the outside either.

"We want to create more stability, players that are going to be here for a long time, and I think that's about enhancing the connection that fans have with the team and players. The connection that fans have with the stars is unlike anything else. Again, I'm hoping that we have some young players step up, but we're going to have to look externally as well."

If the Giants strike out on both Ohtani and Yamamoto, the pickings will get slim in terms of players who might sell tickets, but the Giants still see plenty of avenues to improve a roster that had a massively disappointing season in 2023. 

Cody Bellinger was a target a year ago and still fits an organization that for a second straight year is seeking athleticism up the middle. The next-best option in center field might again come from the overseas market. 

Several high-ranking Giants officials visited South Korea this summer to watch outfielder Jung Hoo Lee, with general manager Pete Putila making a return trip just to be present for the 25-year-old's final game for the Kiwoom Heroes. The front office has spent months preparing to put a full-court press on Yamamoto and Lee, in particular.

Lee is viewed as a good defensive center fielder who is an ideal fit for the organization's philosophy at the plate. He walked 49 times to just 23 strikeouts this season, with one longtime KBO observer saying he has "probably the best hand-eye coordination the [KBO] has ever seen." A gap-to-gap hitter, Lee hit 23 homers in 2022 but was set back by an ankle injury this season and had just six in 86 games. There's a belief by people familiar with his game that more power is on the way. 

The Giants intended to make Lee one of their top targets long before firing Gabe Kapler, and their new choice for manager makes the pursuit even more logical. Bob Melvin helped Ha-Seong Kim become a big contributor in San Diego, and the Giants see plenty of similarities. Kim's success the last two seasons is one reason the Giants are so comfortable chasing Lee as their potential solution in center field. 

"We've done a lot of work on him," Zaidi said. "We've been over there a bunch of times. He missed a lot of time in the second half with an injury, but the anticipation is he'll be healthy."

Lee's market is expected to be far more palatable than the others, although Boston's surprise $90 million deal with outfielder Masataka Yoshida last offseason is a reminder that all it takes is one team to take the bidding to a surprising place. No matter what happens with this year's top free agents, the Giants should be able to keep pace -- if they want to.

The final day before the GM Meetings brought official updates on Alex Cobb ($10 million option was picked up), Michael Conforto (opted in for $18 million) Ross Stripling (opted in for $12.5 million) and Sean Manaea (opted out). Manaea is one of eight official Giants free agents, joining Brandon Crawford (a free agent for the first time), Joc Pederson, Alex Wood, Jakob Junis, John Brebbia, Scott Alexander and Roberto Perez. Tommy La Stella's money finally is off the books, too.

Most, if not all, of those spots can be filled internally with young players, allowing the Giants to push payroll toward bigger pursuits. Assuming they don't have any arbitration surprises, the Giants will enter the offseason with roughly $70 million to spend before they hit the luxury tax, and the only long-term commitment they have is to Logan Webb, who on Monday was named a Cy Young Award finalist

A month ago, the Giants didn't anticipate adding depth pieces behind Webb, aiming instead to pursue only top-of-the-rotation options, but the last few weeks might have altered that thinking. In addition to Manaea's likely departure, they'll be without Cobb for at least the first month of the season after he underwent surgery to repair his hip labrum and an impingement. 

The free agent market isn't flush with position player talent, but it is with starting pitching, and the Giants will have plenty of options beyond Yamamoto. Adding a veteran or two could allow them to deal some of their own young starting pitching for a controllable position player.

"It all comes down to balance, right? If you feel like you have a little bit of a surplus there -- it never really feels like you have a surplus in pitching -- but if it gives us an opportunity to fill some of our needs on the position player side with the types of players and profiles that we'll be looking for, I think we'll be very open to that," Zaidi said. "Everybody needs pitching, everybody really wants young pitching, so I think we'll have a lot of potential trade partners if we find some players to target that we really like."

It will take weeks for the dominoes to begin to fall in free agency, but trades will start to be planned out this week as team executives gather in the same place for the first time since the end of the season. The Giants plan to be right in the middle of those conversations too, in large part because they have to be.

This is one of the most important offseasons in the history of the franchise, but they know better than anyone that it's dangerous to pin all your hopes on free agency.

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