Blanco setting himself up for prime role with Giants

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Blanco setting himself up for prime role with Giants

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. Giants manager Bruce Bochy cant begin announcing his opening-day roster. Not with 18 days between now and the National Anthem at Arizona's Chase Field.

But ask himabout non-roster outfielder Gregor Blanco, and Bochy has a hard time containinghis excitement.

I cant give you anything definite, but I will say hesplayed as good a ball as anybody here this spring, Bochy said. Gregor hasreally swung it well, run the bases well. Were very excited about having him.

Samuel Morse couldnt have telegraphed it better.

A late injury or two can change the calculus. An unexpectedtrade discussion, too. But as it stands, Blanco, the speedy little 28-year-oldoutfielder from Venezuela, has earned a place with the 2012 Giants.

And maybe not just a place on the bench, either.

He leads the Giants with a .444 average (which also ranksseventh in the majors) and his seven stolen bases (in eight attempts) paceseveryone under the Florida and Arizona sunshine. He also ranks second in themajors with 10 runs.

Spring stats are meaningless, of course. But the manner in which Blanco is compiling them is not. He's scoring his runs in exactly the manner the Giantshope to support their pitchers this season always pushing for that extra base, whetherits going first to third, second to home or turning any momentary bobble intoan extra 90 feet.

Blanco didnt lose any momentum from the Venezuelan winterleague, where he was named MVP after leading all players in on-base percentage(.478), stolen bases (18) and runs scored (47) for Tiburones de la Guaira.

This is great for us to have him here, said young catcherHector Sanchez, who had his own banner winter for Tiburones to win the leaguesrookie of the year award. Hes the best leadoff hitter Ive ever seen.Everything he does, he does with energy.

Back in November, though, it was Sanchez and fellowVenezuelan Pablo Sandoval who brought the energy. They both made their ownrecruiting pitches to Blanco, who also was offered minor league contracts and spring training invitations from the Miami Marlins,Cincinnati Reds and Philadelphia Phillies.

I knew the things he can do, Sandoval said. I see itevery year in winter ball. You know what? I told him, Youll get anopportunity with us. You can run, throw, hit and catch. We need a guy likethat. Hes getting an opportunity in spring training and hes working hard.

Hes a great guy, too. You need a guy like that on yourteam. Winning an MVP as a leadoff hitter thats tough to do, really tough. Im excited hes here.

How would Sanchez describe Blancos performance in winterball?

Oh, oh, extraordinary, the 22-year-old catcher said. I am sohappy hes here. I helped him make that decision. Its probably the bestdecision he could make.

Said Blanco: I knew they had a great group of guys. I knewId be playing for a good team. Hector, Pablo, they really supported me.Everybody told me Id like it here, Id like my teammates. And I always likedthis team. The Giants have a good history, especially as a winning team.

I think Im a winner. I wanted to be a part of it.

Given his huge winter, the Giants were lucky that Blancomade his decision in November. They didnt need to see him win an MVP award to knowhe could be an asset. Their Triple-A coverage scouts identified his athleticismand his ability to get on base, vice president Bobby Evans said.

It was easy to discount the .196 and .203 averages he postedlast year for the Triple-A affiliates of the Kansas City Royals and WashingtonNationals. For one, Blanco was playing with an injured left wrist that requiredsurgery in June. For another, even swinging one-handed, he still managedon-base percentages of .384 and .335.

Blanco recently examined a photo of himself in the battersbox for Omaha. He was choking up three inches on the bat.

Thats the only way I could hit, he said. Its very hardto play like that. I never realized how much it would affect me.

Triple-A pitchers knew he was hurt, too. Yet Blanco stillfound a way to get aboard. Now that hes healthy, its been hard to keep himoff the basepaths.

I really feel good about myself, Blanco said. I had theinjury and I came back. Thats the biggest improvement. I really work hard forwhat I try to do. Last year, I lost 20 pounds. Now I am the kind of player Iwant to be.

Blanco, a left-handed hitter, still swings and misses with alarming frequency. Itsone of the major reasons he didnt stick with the Atlanta Braves, who developedhim and gave him an opportunity in 2008, when center fielder Mark Kotsay wentdown with an injury. Blanco ended up playing in 144 games, hitting .251 with a.366 on-base percentage in just more than 500 plate appearances.

He feels he is a smarter, more aggressive player now.

Bochy is letting me play and I really appreciate it,Blanco said. I always wanted to have that with a manager or a team. InAtlanta, it was different. They gave me an opportunity to play in the bigleagues and I really, really appreciate that always. But I was always stopped.I always believe I could steal bases.

Although the Giants will face a roster crunch, as every teamdoes every spring, its become clear that they need a true fourth outfielderbehind Melky Cabrera, Angel Pagan and Nate Schierholtz especially given Paganand Schierholtzs reputations for coming down with nagging injuries.

Pagan hasnt exactly dazzled this spring, either. And youdont have to delve too far into Giants history to find a non-roster invitee(Andres Torres) eventually taking a starting job from an established,higher-salaried player (Aaron Rowand).

Theres still 18 days go. For Blanco, thats just 18 more opportunities to put his game on full display.

The way Im playing now, I think this is me, he said. Itfeels great.

Pros and cons: Should Giants seriously pursue Andrew McCutchen?

Pros and cons: Should Giants seriously pursue Andrew McCutchen?

SAN FRANCISCO — The Giants and Pirates nearly pulled off a trade in July when Bobby Evans sought a closer and zeroed in on Mark Melancon. Ultimately, Pirates GM Neil Huntington shipped Melancon to Washington D.C., but the two teams could be connected again as the winter meetings approach. 

Pittsburgh’s star outfielder, Andrew McCutchen, is reportedly available — very available. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Huntington and the Pirates are calling potential suitors, with the Nationals, Rangers and Mariners listed as teams that have discussed a McCutchen deal. 

At first glance, it’s remarkable that this point has even been reached. This is nearly the equivalent of the Giants putting Buster Posey on the market. McCutchen, drafted 11th overall in 2005, has spent the better part of a decade as the face of a franchise that has gone from the cellar to perennial contention. He’s a a five-time All-Star and won the National League’s MVP award in 2014.  

McCutchen has helped revitalize the Pirates, but they’re still the Pirates, and they’re still constrained by a strict budget. Pittsburgh has two outfield building blocks in Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco, with prospect Austin Meadows on the way. They reportedly are set on moving McCutchen.

It’s not a question of if Evans will end up on the other end of one of those phone calls. The Giants always do their due diligence, and they could use help in the outfield. The question is should the Giants seriously pursue McCutchen, and if they do, can they actually get him? Here are the pros and cons … 

Pro: I mean, he’s Andrew McCutchen. Even with a “down year” in 2016, he leads all NL players in WAR (28.6 per FanGraphs) over the past five seasons. He’s a .292 career hitter with a .381 on-base percentage and six consecutive 20-homer seasons. McCutchen’s OPS dropped more than 100 points last season, but he still hit 24 homers, seven more than any Giant. In theory, McCutchen would add a very dangerous right-handed bat to a team that’s ready to win now. 

Con: Is he still THAT version of Andrew McCutchen? The drop off in 2016 was steep in certain respects. McCutchen’s .336 OBP was a career-low by nearly 30 points. His slugging percentage has dipped more than 100 points over the past two seasons. He stole just six bases in 13 attempts. Most concerning: McCutchen’s fielding metrics fell off a cliff. The former Gold Glove winner was worth negative 28 defensive runs saved per FanGraphs. By comparison, Angel Pagan posted a negative 20 in 2015 and got moved to left. The Giants could acquire McCutchen to play left, but it’s unclear how he would react to switching positions given that every defensive inning of his career has been spent in center. Was 2016 a fluke or the beginning of a slide? 

Pro: Let’s say he is amendable to moving … McCutchen would balance a lineup that leans to the left, and there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be an above average defender in left field. He has one guaranteed year left on his deal at a very affordable $14 million, with a $14.5 million club option for 2018. The front office could basically sit back for two years, as every starting position player but Eduardo Nunez would be under team control through the 2018 season. 

Con: The fit is an imperfect one in a number of ways. Let’s start with what it would take to actually get McCutchen. The Giants didn't offer enough to get Melancon, and a McCutchen deal would surely center around top prospects Christian Arroyo or Tyler Beede, plus other players. Joe Panik’s name might come up, too. The Pirates are reportedly asking the Nationals for minor league outfielder Victor Robles, who is a better prospect than any player the Giants have. So any potential deal would clean out a system that’s thin after trades for Nunez, Will Smith and Matt Moore. 

The financial cost is not insignificant. The Giants don’t have that much wiggle room in their budget, and a new closer will be expensive. Add a $14 million hitter and you’re looking at about $45 million for an outfield made up of three players on the wrong side of 30. For months, the Giants have signaled that they’re more comfortable giving the open playing time to young players like Mac Williamson and Jarrett Parker, who would be hopelessly blocked by a trade for McCutchen. 

Conclusion: If a trade does happen, it will be a crushing blow to Pirates fans. To save some face, the organization will need to get an elite player or two in return, and as always in these situations, other teams have much more to offer than the Giants. Robles, for instance, was the No. 33 prospect in the minors last season, per Baseball America. 

Even if the Giants are interested, they won’t win a bidding war. But they don’t have to. The focus has been on fixing the ninth inning, not left field, and the guess here is that it remains that way. 
 

MLB, union beat deadline, agree to tentative new CBA

MLB, union beat deadline, agree to tentative new CBA

IRVING, Texas -- Baseball players and owners reached a tentative agreement on a five-year labor contract Wednesday night, a deal that will extend the sport's industrial peace to 26 years since the ruinous fights in the first two decades of free agency.

After days of near round-the-clock talks, negotiators reached a verbal agreement about 3 1/2 hours before the expiration of the current pact. Then they worked to draft a memorandum of understanding, which must be ratified by both sides.

"It's great! Another five years of uninterrupted baseball," Oakland catcher Stephen Vogt said in a text message.

In announcing the agreement, Major League Baseball said it will make specific terms available when drafting is complete.

"Happy it's done, and baseball is back on," Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Brandon McCarthy said.

As part of the deal, the luxury tax threshold rises from $189 million to $195 million next year, $197 million in 2018, $206 million in 2019, $209 million in 2020 and $210 million in 2021, a person familiar with the agreement told The Associated Press. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because the deal had not yet been signed.

Tax rates increase from 17.5 percent to 20 percent for first offenders, remain at 30 percent for second offenders and rise from 40 percent to 50 percent for third offenders. There is a new surtax of 12 percent for teams $20 million to $40 million above the threshold, 42.5 percent for first offenders more than $40 million above the threshold and 45 percent for subsequent offenders more than $40 million above.

A player can receive a free-agent qualifying offer only once in his career and will have 10 days to consider it instead of seven. A club signing a player who failed to accept a qualifying offer would lose its third-highest amateur draft pick if it is a revenue-sharing receiver, its second- and fifth-highest picks (plus a loss of $1 million in its international draft pool) if it pays luxury tax for the just-ended season, and its second-highest pick (plus $500,000 in the international draft pool) if it is any other team.

A club losing a free agent who declined a qualifying offer would receive an extra selection after the first round of the next draft if the player signed a contract for $50 million or more and after the competitive balance B round if under $50 million. However, if that team pays luxury tax, the extra draft pick would drop to after the fourth round.

Among other details:

-For a team $40 million or more in excess of the luxury tax threshold, its highest selection in the next amateur draft will drop 10 places.

-While management failed to obtain an international draft of amateurs residing outside the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada, it did get a hard cap on each team's annual bonus pool for those players starting at $4.75 million for the signing period that starts next July 2.

-There is no change to limits on active rosters, which remain at 25 for most of the season and 40 from Sept. 1 on.

-Smokeless tobacco will be banned for all players who currently do not have at least one day of major league service.

-The regular season will expand from 183 days to 187 starting in 2018, creating four more scheduled off days. There are additional limitations on the start time of night games on getaway days.

-The minimum salary rises from $507,500 to $535,000 next year, $545,000 in 2018 and $555,000 in 2019, with cost-of-living increases the following two years; the minor league minimum for a player appearing on the 40-man roster for at least the second time goes up from $82,700 to $86,500 next year, $88,000 in 2018 and $89,500 in 2019, followed by cost-of-living raises.

-The drop-off in slot values in the first round of the amateur draft will be lessened.

-Oakland's revenue-sharing funds will be cut to 75 percent next year, 50 percent in 2018, 25 percent in 2019 and then phases out.

-As part of the drug agreement, there will be increased testing, players will not be credited with major league service time during suspensions, and biomarker testing for HGH will begin next year.

Negotiators met through most of Tuesday night in an effort to increase momentum in the talks, which began during spring training. This is the third straight time the sides reached a new agreement before expiration, but a deal was struck eight weeks in advance of expiration in 2006 and three weeks ahead of expiration in 2011.

Talks took place at a hotel outside Dallas where the players' association held its annual executive board meeting.

Tony Clark, the first former player to serve as executive director of the union, and others set up in a meeting room within earshot of a children's choir practicing Christmas carols. A man dressed as Santa Claus waited nearby.

Baseball had eight work stoppages from 1972-95, the last a 7 1/2-month strike in 1994-95 that led to the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. The 2002 agreement was reached after players authorized a strike and about 3 1/2 hours before the first game that would have been impacted by a walkout.

The peace in baseball is in contrast to the recent labor histories of other major sports. The NFL had a preseason lockout in 2011, the NBA lost 240 games to a lockout that same year and the NHL lost 510 games to a lockout in 2012-13.