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Giants must weigh their options on Panda's future

Slugger is lighter, faster, stronger and a season away from free agency @TracyRingolsby

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Giants manager Bruce Bochy glanced at a slimmed-down Pablo Sandoval and grinned.

"He's an important part of our team," Bochy said. "You saw how we struggled trying to score runs last year. … We need him to be the player he can be, a switch-hitter with power and run production and a quality defensive third baseman. It's encouraging to see him come into camp like he has."

It certainly should make Bochy's job a lot easier in his effort to rally a Giants team that went from World Series champions in 2012 to a third-place National League West finish and a sub-.500 record (76-86) in 2013.

It does not, however, make the job any easier for general manager Brian Sabean and Giants ownership.

While Bochy's biggest decision regarding Sandoval is when to give him a rest and where to put him in the lineup, Sabean and ownership must make a decision this year concerning Sandoval that will have a long-term impact on the franchise.

Sandoval could become a free agent at season's end. San Francisco has mentioned the idea of working out a multiyear deal to pre-empt any bidding for Sandoval by other teams in the fall, but the team has yet to make any concrete offers.

They know it would be best to move quickly, but they must also come to terms with where they think Sandoval is headed down the road.

While no figures have been given out, estimates indicate Sandoval has dropped at least 40 pounds from a year ago, thanks to the efforts of personal trainer Rafael Alvarez, who had also worked with Bobby Abreu for 11 years. And Sandoval is so intent on continuing to firm up his body that Alvarez accompanied Sandoval from their native Venezuela to Arizona for Spring Training.

"I want to be a better ballplayer," Sandoval said.

The Giants have been careful in how they discuss Sandoval's contract situation.

"I can't speak for Brian," Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said of Sabean, whose input will be weighed heavily, "but we are open-minded. We don't have infinite dollars, but we have been able to get things done."

It is not an easy decision.

Sandoval is the heart of the Giants' offense. He hit .295 with an .825 OPS over his five full big league seasons and led the team in hitting 87 home runs, a total 26 higher than that of runner-up Buster Posey, who played four full big league seasons during that time. Sandoval also led San Francisco during that stretch with 365 RBIs, 102 more than No. 2 Posey's, and 156 doubles, 55 more than Posey's.

What hangs over the Giants' decision-making process is how long the new-look Sandoval will last. The Giants don't talk about it, but they can't ignore it.

After the 2010 season, when Sandoval hit .268 with only 13 home runs before finding himself replaced in San Francisco's lineup by Juan Uribe during the World Series, Sandoval undertook a conditioning program similar to this year's. The result? In 2011, he hit .315 with 23 home runs and 70 RBIs to earn the first of two straight All-Star selections.

Sandoval, however, gradually reduced his focus on fitness, and not only did his production suffer (26 home runs combined in 2012-13), but out of 138 starts last season, there were 40 times in which he was replaced for defensive reasons in the late innings.

Sandoval now says that was the wakeup call. It reinforced the idea his fitness commitment had to be long term.

"I don't care about my contract," Sandoval said shortly after arriving to Spring Training. "I care about my team."

And Sandoval's teammates did make their feelings felt late last season. Sandoval acknowledges that Posey, Hunter Pence, Matt Cain and Marco Scutaro, among others, challenged him to get in shape. Sabean was so upset at one point that he threatened to send Sandoval back to the Minor Leagues.

"It made me grow up," Sandoval said.

The question the Giants face in negotiating a long-term contract is this: Will Sandoval make a long-term commitment to his health? Or will the security of a long-term contract and any potential success this season make him complacent?

The Giants are not yet ready to answer.

What Baer did acknowledge Wednesday was that there had not yet been an exchange of proposals between the team and Sandoval's agents. He also warned the media to avoid becoming too concerned about a pending deadline.

"It is possible that we do not extend [the contract this spring]," Baer said, "but we could still do something by the All-Star break or the end of the year. … We have the month of March. We'll see what happens."

Two years ago, at the Play Ball Lunch, just days before the season opener, the Giants announced a six-year, $127.5 million deal with Cain. And at the same event last year, they announced a nine-year, $167 million commitment to Posey. Meanwhile, Pence, whose agents talked with San Francisco as early as last spring, finally agreed to a five-year, $90 million deal that kept him out of free agency at 1 a.m. on the morning of the final Saturday of last season.

"I don't think the message should be with Pablo or any other player we are talking to that if he is not signed by a certain date it won't be done," Baer said.

The one certainty is that Bochy likes what he sees from Sandoval in the early days of camp.

"He's moving quicker, the first step," Bochy said. "I can see a significant difference."

Sandoval is certainly giving the Giants something to think about.

Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for

San Francisco Giants