SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants' search for a left fielder who can help improve the club's offense will be magnified during next week's Winter Meetings in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Yet Giants general manager Brian Sabean has acknowledged that winter could turn to spring or even summer before the team can suitably fill this need.
"I think there's a general open-mindedness," Sabean said recently as he articulated the philosophy driving the Giants' search for a left fielder. "But it's also cautionary."
Sabean reaffirmed that the Giants won't pursue any of the outfielders who received one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offers from their former clubs (Carlos Beltran, Shin-Soo Choo or Nelson Cruz ), since signing one of them would require San Francisco to forfeit a top choice in June's First-Year Player Draft.
Though the Giants maintain some payroll flexibility even after committing $168 million to right-handers Tim Hudson, Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong, right fielder Hunter Pence and left-hander Javier Lopez, they won't overpay for a left fielder. "It's not going to be a high-ticket item," Sabean said.
Sabean realizes that an everyday player, not just a right-handed-batting platoon complement for Gregor Blanco, would be the best antidote for the malaise that infected Giants left fielders in 2013. They ranked last in the Major Leagues in runs (56), homers (five) and OPS (.651).
Sabean affirmed that whoever the Giants acquire, "We're going to have to be satisfied in some form that [he] upgrades our situation." Moreover, this mystery player will be a full-fledged outfielder. Sabean declared that obtaining a first baseman and moving Brandon Belt to left field is not an option.
If the Giants can't find anybody during the offseason who fits this description, they'll simply keep looking. Sabean expressed hope that "up the line during Spring Training something could shake loose, or more so at the [Trade] Deadline."
That may seem like a long time to wait. But it's worth remembering that during their pair of World Series-winning seasons, the Giants obtained key outfielders relatively late in the year. In 2010, Pat Burrell and Cody Ross didn't play their first games for San Francisco until June and August, respectively. And Pence was a Trade Deadline acquisition in 2012.
Depth: Given second baseman Marco Scutaro's age (38), third baseman Pablo Sandoval's penchant for injuries and the unsettled situation in left field, the Giants could use at least one more experienced utility man to bolster the roster. They plugged rookies and near-rookies such as Nick Noonan and Brett Pill into reserve roles last season, with little success. Joaquin Arias has proven to be a capable handyman, but he can't anchor the bench by himself.
Bullpen: Santiago Casilla and a healthy Jeremy Affeldt need assistance to bridge the gap between the starting pitchers and closer Sergio Romo. The Giants wish to acquire one or more relievers who can handle the setup role in extreme circumstances and simply consume innings under ordinary conditions. Chad Gaudin thrived in this role last season before he became a starter.
Who they can trade if necessary
Sandoval: Those of you who wear Panda hats must not panic. More than likely, Sandoval will remain a Giant through the 2014 season. But what's due to happen after the season complicates matters. Sandoval will be eligible for free agency. If he excels, the Giants must determine whether he's worth a contract extension, given his injury history and fluctuating weight. If he struggles, they must decide whether they think he can bounce back. Trading him now would relieve club management of a possible headache, though it would rob the lineup of a potential big bat.
Catcher Hector Sanchez: Like Sandoval, Sanchez probably will stay put. But as a switch-hitting catcher who's only 24, Sanchez is an extremely valuable commodity. If the Giants opt to trade for a left fielder, they probably could get the man they want by offering to part with Sanchez.
Outfielder Gary Brown: The Giants still believe in Brown, their No. 1 selection (24th overall) in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft. But his .231 batting average last season for Triple-A Fresno tempered the organization's enthusiasm. Brown wouldn't be the key to a trade, but the Giants might include him to sweeten a deal if the other team expressed enough interest in him.
The Giants treasure their array of promising Minor League pitchers, a group that includes Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn, Chris Stratton, Martin Agosta and Adalberto Mejia. They'll probably begin arriving in San Francisco in 2015, though one or two might trickle in toward the end of next season. The Giants are so excited about this influx that they signed Hudson, Lincecum and Vogelsong to one- or two-year contracts partly to keep future rotation spots open for their young pitchers.
Rule 5 Draft
The Giants have avoided using the Rule 5 Draft as a preferred method of player acquisition. Often, many of their top player-personnel executives are en route to the airport when the Draft begins on the morning of the Winter Meetings' final day. With the No. 14 pick, the Giants might study lists of unprotected players for possible acquisition more closely than usual. But don't expect this to be a 'round-the-clock process.
A dozen players -- Buster Posey, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, Scutaro, Angel Pagan, Affeldt, Pence, Lincecum, Hudson, Sandoval, Casilla and Lopez -- are locked into multi-year contracts worth eight or nine figures. Since each performer is essential to the Giants' success, none of them is going anywhere, unless the Giants make a stunning move involving Sandoval.
The Giants' player payroll, which reached approximately $137 million in 2013, is bound to rise again. Fortunately for the front office, the ascent shouldn't be overly dramatic. "It's a jump," Giants president Larry Baer conceded. "Our history tends to be, we don't take wild swings up or down. And so it's up. It's gone up every year in recent memory. I can't remember when it went down."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Haft-Baked Ideas, and follow him on Twitter at @sfgiantsbeat.