Whether I’m still waiting to draft or scouring my league for trade targets to improve my roster, I always like to go through the list of impending free agents and see who might be primed to take their game to the next level with the hopes of cashing in on the open market. It’s not an exact science and I have yet to find enough data to support the notion that most players perform above their career rates during the final year of their contract, but with some players you’ve watched closely for a few years, your gut feeling is usually enough. This year, there were a number of names on the list whom I thought capable of taking that next step, but the one that stood out to me the most was Giants third baseman, Pablo Sandoval.
I remember back in 2004, I had that gut feeling about Adrian Beltre. I had owned him in previous seasons, watched him intently on the field, listened to all his interviews, noted his attitude and swagger and I just knew that he was going to come up big when a big paycheck was on the line. Sure there are questions about what he did to suddenly jack more than twice the number of home runs as he did the year before, but that’s a debate for another time and forum. All I cared about was that he helped me to win a championship in my home league; my own fat little paycheck, if you will.
There’s enough going on with Sandoval right now to help that gut feeling grow (no pun intended). You could say that it all started right after the Giants won the Series in 2010 with little thanks to the Panda who batted just .268 and kicked in just 13 home runs that year. With most of the personal issues that plagued him that year in the past (bitter divorce/custody battle), Panda spent the offseason on a heavy weight-loss and workout regime. He spent significant time working on his batting eye with Barry Bonds and he walked into 2011 a leaner, meaner Panda, opening the year “en fuego” with five home runs and a .313 average by the end of April. The broken hamate bone he suffered put the kibosh on what could have been a phenomenal year, but even with the lost time, his numbers looked great.
The following two seasons — well, season and a half — were filled with more injuries (the hamate bone in his other hand, if you can believe that) and struggles and there was definitely an air of loafing going on with him. He put all the weight he had lost back on and then added to it even more. Stock reports for In-and-Out Burger soared apparently as the Double-Double Animal Style gained in popularity. His body suffered, his mind suffered and his game suffered. Heavy criticism was rightfully doled onto him and he finally took it to heart midway through the year last year.
Maybe it was the assault on him in the media. Maybe it was the diminishing number of silly panda hats in the stands. Maybe he was in the shower one day and realized that it was taking him far too long to wash that enormous dough-like body of his. But whatever it was, it finally slapped him upside the head last year and made him realize that he was pissing on an phenomenal gift and even more phenomenal opportunity. He gets to play baseball for a living and get paid millions to do so. He was Flounder from Animal House standing in front of Dean Wormer being told that “fat, drunk and stupid was no way to go through life.” I don’t know about drunk, but he had fat and stupid locked down pretty well.
With the help of his brother, who became his personal chef, Sandoval turned himself around in the second half of the season. His shape went from round to robust while his average jumped nearly 30 points. He also improved his walk rate, his on-base percentage, his slugging, his line drive rate and his isolated power totals. Coincidence? I think not. We saw him do this back in 2011 so we know the talent level is there. It is definitely attainable and now that he’s continued his new workout regime and spent the winter playing and working out in Venezuela, he enters 2014 much in the same way he entered 2011.
Now, of course, we’re not falling for the banana in the tailpipe here and buying into the whole “best shape of his life” cliche, but sometimes you have to look past the raw data and go more in-depth with the person. Remember folks, they’re people, not robots. Sandoval has always been that player who wears his heart on his sleeve and when he’s suffering personally, we all see it in his game. But he seems to have his head on straight and the recent reports of his five-year $90M extension demands show that he’s looking to set himself and his family up for a very long time. For me, that screams big year and with less girth and no hamate bones to break, I’m buying it for 2014.
Howard Bender has been covering fantasy sports for over 10 years on a variety of websites. In addition to his work here, you can also find him at his site, RotobuzzGuy.com, Fantasy Alarm, RotoWire and Mock Draft Central. Follow him on Twitter at @rotobuzzguy or for more direct questions or comments, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org