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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

The Giants are focused on the players they have

Michael Conforto sat out the 2022 season after shoulder surgery, but he hopes to rebuild his career with the San Francisco Giants.

By James Wagner

The San Francisco Giants were supposed to be celebrating on Dec. 20. A team with a roster in need of a jolt had seemingly recovered from its failure to lure Aaron Judge away from the New York Yankees by securing perhaps the second-biggest free agent of the offseason: shortstop Carlos Correa, who agreed to a 13-year, $350 million contract.

But when Correa went through his physical examination — standard practice for new signees — the team became concerned about the long-term health of his right leg, which had been surgically repaired in 2014 after he fractured it in a minor league game.

On the day Correa was to be introduced as a member of the Giants, the team postponed the news conference, and news rippled across baseball that San Francisco was hoping to renegotiate the terms of the deal. That unleashed a series of events that briefly had Correa agree to terms with the New York Mets. He ultimately landed back with the Minnesota Twins, for whom he played in 2022, on a six-year, $200 million contract.

Michael Conforto, a free-agent outfielder, knew the Correa deal was unraveling when he participated in a workout for the Giants at a sports complex in Scottsdale, Arizona. Because Conforto, a former Mets star, was working his way back from a shoulder surgery, which caused him to miss the 2022 season, he took batting practice and ran and threw for Justin Viele, the Giants’ hitting coach, and Dave Groeschner, the head athletic trainer.

“It was like a tryout, and I felt like I was back in high school doing a showcase,” Conforto recalled recently. And given the news about Correa, Conforto knew the backdrop of his workout. “It was like the big elephant in the room,” he said. “I wasn’t going to pry.”

Three days after what was supposed to be Correa’s introductory event, the Giants struck a pair of deals: a three-year, $33 million contract with free-agent relief pitcher Taylor Rogers and a two-year, $36 million pact with Conforto.

The Giants, desperate to recover after following a 107-win season in 2021 with an 81-81 record in 2022, may not have gotten Judge or Correa, but the deals for Rogers and Conforto added to an offseason haul in which they spent $174 million on six free agents. It was the eighth-highest figure spent in Major League Baseball, according to Spotrac — a surprising amount given all the attention on whom the Giants did not sign.

“We went into the offseason feeling like we were a good team that wasn’t that far away,” said Farhan Zaidi, the Giants’ president of baseball operations. “And we made a lot of good additions. It’s a really deep team, and that doesn’t make headlines in the offseason. But over 162 games, it really matters.”

Entering the winter, the Giants were hoping to reignite excitement among fans. One of the biggest draws in MLB during their run of World Series titles (2010, ’12 and ’14), the Giants dropped to under 3 million in home attendance in 2019 and 2022. (The 2020 season was only 60 games; 2021 had pandemic restrictions.) And 2021 represented the team’s only winning record, and its only postseason appearance, since 2016.

In early November, Zaidi said there was no player that would be out of the Giants’ price range. The big-market Giants had the 12th-largest payroll in MLB in 2022, according to Spotrac, and, per Zaidi, luring a player was simply a matter of mutual interest.

Judge, 30, was seen as a rare free agent who could change a team’s fortunes almost single-handedly. A four-time All-Star, he won the 2022 American League MVP Award after smashing an AL-record 62 home runs. A Northern California native, he had grown up watching Barry Bonds star for the Giants, and the team hosted him for a visit in late November.

But persuading Judge to ditch the Yankees — where he was offered a nine-year, $360 million deal and the title of team captain — was too much for the Giants to overcome.

Correa, 28, was more amenable. An all-around star and unapologetic leader for a Houston Astros team that won a since-tainted World Series title in 2017, Correa is a stellar defender and has hit at least 20 home runs in six of his eight seasons. When the Giants committed to giving him the largest contract in team history, he was going to displace fan favorite Brandon Crawford, who was the last link to the team’s run of championships.

But when the deal fell apart, the Giants pivoted.

Rogers and Conforto were added to a list of deals that included outfielders Mitch Haniger (three years, $43.5 million) and Joc Pederson (one year, $19.65 million) and starting pitchers Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling (both for two years, $25 million). In January, the Giants added reliever Luke Jackson (two years, $11.5 million).

Several of them represented buy low opportunities after injuries or down seasons.

“It’s a bunch of guys that have really high upside,” said Conforto, 30, who hit a career-high 33 home runs in 2019 for the Mets and hit .322 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.

Conforto, who had a down year in 2021, was one of the most intriguing free agents of the offseason, despite the shoulder surgery.

At full strength, Conforto has the ability to pay off for the Giants more than most of this offseason’s free-agent options.

Going forward, Conforto and other Giants players think the team’s attempts to sign the top free agents should be viewed as a good thing, even if they failed.

“Now that I’m a part of the organization, I look at the offseason that we had and there’s a huge commitment to winning here,” Conforto added later. “They were fully committed to bringing in a superstar and willing to pay the money. I look at that as a positive thing.”

Pederson, 30, did his best to publicly recruit Judge — Zaidi joked that he had fired Pederson as a recruiter — but said the team had moved on from the players they failed to land. “That’s old news,” he said, adding that he was excited to add several new teammates after a frustrating season.

“Baseball is a strange game where you can’t just buy one or two superstars and that’s going to guarantee you the playoffs or a World Series or anything like that,” he said. “Other teams have tried models like that and have not been very successful.”

But will the additions — more bulk than brand names — make a difference in the National League West, where the perennially contending Los Angeles Dodgers and superstar-laden San Diego Padres are favored? Or will the Giants’ failure to land Judge or Correa hang over the team?

Zaidi said San Francisco simply has to win more games if it wants people to concentrate on who is there rather than who is not.

“It’s a story as long as people keep writing about it because we’re not talking about it, we’re not thinking about it,” Zaidi said. “We recognize that we want the focus to be on this team, this group of players. And when we get out there and start playing and hopefully play well, that will change the narrative.”

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