By Andrew Baggarly
SAN FRANCISCO – The Giants liked Nori Aoki and appreciated what he was able to contribute when healthy last season. But they aren’t ready to commit to him yet.
The club declined its $5.5 million option on Aoki, and in an expected move, also declined to bring back outfielder Marlon Byrd for $8 million. Aoki instead receives a $700,000 buyout and becomes a free agent.
Giants GM Bobby Evans said he hasn’t ruled out re-signing Aoki later this offseason. But picking up his option “could encumber our flexibility” as the club both seeks to stockpile available funds to go after high-profile starting pitchers while also keeping open some intriguing trade possibilities to address the outfield.
Aoki was headed for the NL All-Star team and batting .3
17 with a .385 on-base percentage before he fractured fibula when hit by a pitch on June 20. That injury cost him a month. Then he was hit on the helmet by a pitch in Chicago on Aug. 9 and sustained a concussion that forced him to miss the final month of the season.
Evans stressed that Aoki was clear of all concussion symptoms when he returned home to Japan a few weeks ago. Aoki’s agent, Nez Balelo, said he spoke to his client last week and was encouraged that the enthusiasm had returned to his voice.
Declining the option wasn’t about health, but about flexibility, Evans said.
“The timing is bad because we have a lot of things to address this winter and a lot of things we want to look at, and it’s about keeping our options open,” Evans said. “To predetermine left field today is just premature.”
Yet Evans didn’t rule out re-signing Aoki at some point this offseason if the need for an outfielder persists.
It wouldn’t be the first time the Giants declined an option and re-signed a player. They did the same with Ryan Vogelsong after the 2013 season; the right-hander ended up making more than the option amount because he hit most of the incentives in his new contract.
“We’re definitely not closing any doors,” Evans said. “There’s certainly interest in having him back, and if we do bring him back, I want to be sure everyone is clear on his role and what he’s walking into in terms of his situation on the roster. We’ll know more about that in the next weeks or months.”
Evans said declining the option wasn’t solely about keeping all arrows in the quiver to land one of the prime starting pitchers in a potent free-agent class that includes Zack Greinke (who opted out of his deal with the Dodgers), David Price, Jordan Zimmermann and Johnny Cueto.
“We’re aware pitching is a concern and there are a lot of ways to address that, (but) we’ll need to look at our outfield,” Evans said. “We can’t have an offseason without ways to improve ourselves (there).”
Evans mentioned Gregor Blanco, Angel Pagan and Hunter Pence, “but that’s only three outfielders. In a perfect world you’d like (Mac) Williamson and (Jarrett) Parker to show up in the spring and give you a reason to put them on the club. You don’t necessarily build your plans around them (doing that). So we’re going to need that depth.”
The free-agent outfield market is almost as stocked as the pitching market, with Juston Upton, Yoenis Cespedes and Alex Gordon among the top choices. But the Giants might find what they need on the trade market; industry sources expect a flurry of deals after an October that featured an especially high volume of conversations among executives. The Giants were deep in talks to acquire Atlanta center fielder Cameron Maybin earlier this year.
As for other internal options, Evans said he “doesn’t hide the fact” that he prefers to keep Brandon Belt at first base rather than contemplate moving him to left field. And besides, the immediate focus for Belt is getting past his concussion symptoms, which continue to linger. Evans said Belt was scheduled to visit with a specialist again this week, but the expectation continues to be that he will be 100 percent recovered long before spring training.
Infielder Kelby Tomlinson also could become a contributor in the outfield and started his crash course there in instructional league in October. Evans said Tomlinson “showed it’s not his natural position but he was able to get some good instruction in a limited amount of reps out there.” He has an offer to join a club in the Mexican League and might decide to play.
The Giants’ first order of business when the free-agent market opens on Saturday will be to restart talks with right-hander Mike Leake, who is expected to hear out interest from the Arizona Diamondbacks. Before the season ended, Leake expressed a desire to sign with a club quickly. The Giants cannot tender Leake a $15.8 million qualifying offer because he was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds in July.
The first major decision of the hot stove league, though, has been made. And given how much they enjoyed Aoki, it wasn’t an easy call.
“It’s been something we’ve processed in a lot of discussions in our offseason meetings,” Evans said. “He got hurt before the break that prevented him from being an All-Star. He was a big part of igniting our offense early in the season and played a significant role.”
Source : http://blogs.mercurynews.com/giants/2015/11/04/why-the-giants-declined-their-5-5-million-option-on-nori-aoki/