MLB: San Francisco Giants at Colorado Rockies

Free agency as we know it is dead. Let us all gather ’round its desiccating corpse and offer prayers to the Angel of Arbitration – wishing for health, prosperity, and draft day magic. The top free agents due to test the market are..[scans charts and clipboards] two bat boys and a retired bullpen catcher. Those are the only people in baseball not currently signed to long, option-heavy contracts.

That isn’t entirely true. The free agent class of 2014 isn’t totally bereft. Why your team could be lucky enough to sign…Colby Rasmus. Or, the very good Chase Headley. A few pitchers like Max Scherzer or James Shields catch the eye but it at the plate the pickings are slim.

Except for one decidedly non-slim option. Pablo Sandoval is scheduled to become a free agent at the end of the season. Like the other top position players, injuries robbed the Panda of some effectiveness in recent years. But he remains the player most clubs will monitor during the 2014 season for all he’s accomplished and all the promise in his perplexing package.

Sandoval is a unique player, a free swinging third baseman with a spotty health record and physical issues beyond his joints and tendons. The man known as the Kung Fu Panda battles his weight, fluctuating over the years and fighting a not-so-quiet battle with Giants management regarding his conditioning. Now, with free agency looming, Sandoval is putting his best foot forward for prospective employers.

Reports swirled before Spring Training began that Sandoval shed 42 pounds through off-season workouts, though the man himself was quick to downplay his actual weight loss. Reporters and fans feel Sandoval does appear quicker this spring, when he reportedly tipped the scales at around 250 pounds, a 30 pound difference from a year ago.

The physical improvements should net immediate gains. Sandoval vowed to get into better shape with playing better defense in mind. The big third baseman, who rates about average according to most defensive metrics, doesn’t fault manager Bruce Bochy for using a defensive replacement in late game situations before. “He needed more defense at the time and I was out of shape.” Sandoval told Andrew Baggerly of CSN Bay Area, explaining that he understood his manager’s decisions.

Losing weight to play better defense is one thing but Sandoval did not stop there this off-season. Like fellow free agent to be Chase Headley, Sandoval is a switch hitter. A switch hitter with a decidedly lopsided platoon split, that is. Sandoval struggled to hit for power against lefties last season, continuing a trend stretching back to 2010. So Sandoval went to the source, working with countryman Miguel Cabrera to improve his swing from the right side of the plate.

Giants hitting coach Hensley Muellens believes Sandoval’s bat speed from the right side is the best he’s seen from the big man in years, while his work with Cabrera helps to refocus the 27-year old’s approach against southpaws.

Cabrera dissected Sandoval’s swing, cooked up game situations and quizzed him on how to break down a pitcher’s weaknesses.

One of his best tips?

“See if they can command the fastball in, because that tells you a lot,” Sandoval said. “And early in the count, get a pitch to drive.”

A new outlook and a stronger body could be a deadly combination for the Giants third baseman, who has a whole new kind of motivation heading into his walk year.

Sandoval has always been a divisive figure among Giants fans. The battles with his weight and concerns about his effort are mostly washed away in the shine of two World Series titles during his time in SF. Oddly, his best career seasons came not in the championship campaigns but the years between. Sandoval was at his most productive in 2009 and 2011, while the Giants hosted parades through San Francisco in 2010 and 2012.

There is, of course, the small matter of a World Series MVP award for Sandoval, who claimed that prize in 2012 while leading the Giants over the Tigers and one Miguel Cabrera. But hearing about Sandoval’s commitment to fitness and making himself a better hitter is sure to rub some Giants fans the wrong way.

Which is understandable, if a little greedy. If Sandoval wants to test free agency at the end of the year and he feels putting up a monster platform year is the best way to maximize his payout, that’s his right. Giants fans leaning towards bitterness would be well-served in admiring the production the new-look Panada stands to provide in this walk year. Not to mention all the great plays and big hits over the years to salve the wounds of a player with misaligned goals (in their collective, strawman mind.)

Galling as it might be, Giants fans are in a unique situation where they can’t really be too disappointed in the Pablo Process. Maybe he didn’t deliver as much as he should and maybe he frustrated fans through his five years by the Bay but the results speak very, very loudly. Loud enough to drown out even the most determined complaints.

The real concern of those who stand opposed to Sandoval’s personal style should be the threat of re-signing Pablo. A player with a questionable approach and questionable fitness who already achieved his payday as well as claiming the ultimate team goal twice in his young career? That’s a player I’d be very, very careful about. Not a guy I’m eager to pin my hopes and dreams against. Though the Panda has proved doubters wrong in the past…