SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants could be actively involved in free agency this offseason, if only because they might not have any choice.
Seven Giants are poised to leap into the free-agent market -- ranging from significant performers (right fielder Carlos Beltran, left-hander Javier Lopez) to the formerly significant (outfielders Cody Ross and Pat Burrell) to the irrelevant (shortstop Orlando Cabrera). An eighth Giant, left-hander Jeremy Affeldt, will become a free agent if the Giants decline to pick up his 2012 contract option.
Since the Giants are unlikely to re-sign all of their free agents -- and conceivably could retain none of them -- they might need to replenish their roster with others from the open market. Leadoff/center-field types, such as Coco Crisp and Grady Sizemore (if Cleveland sets him free), have already been linked to the Giants. So has the versatile Michael Cuddyer.
Though the Giants' offensive shortcomings are well documented, they cannot afford to pursue the likes of Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder or Jose Reyes, the top free agents, who will surely command nine-figure deals. San Francisco's player payroll will probably hover in the $125 million range, which is roughly the same as last year. That won't leave general manager Brian Sabean with much to allocate for free agents, particularly since the Giants have 13 arbitration-eligible players -- many of whom they absolutely must bring back if they hope to remain a postseason contender.
The Giants are interested in welcoming back Beltran, whom they acquired from the Mets shortly before the Trade Deadline to solidify the offense. Beltran injured his right hand and didn't lead the Giants into the postseason as they had hoped, but he impressed them enough while batting .323 with a .920 OPS in 44 games. Beltran's extensive injury history will curb the Giants' appetite to sign him to a multiyear contract, unless they somehow can convince him to accept a two-year deal. Any Beltran-San Francisco deal isn't likely to be forged quickly.
Lopez is guaranteed to be a big winner in free agency, regardless of who signs him. He could come close to doubling the $2.375 million he earned this year. Given the widespread hunger for left-handed relief help, he very well could become unaffordable to the Giants. Lopez is coming off a strong 2011 campaign in which he went 5-2 with a 2.72 ERA in 70 games. He limited opponents to a .221 batting average; lefties hit just .163 off him.
The uncertainty surrounding Lopez could induce the Giants to hold onto Affeldt so their left-handed bullpen contingent isn't totally depleted. Sabean declared in late September that he expects Affeldt to be a Giant next season. That would mean picking up the $5 million option on Affeldt's 2012 contract or negotiating a new deal.
Among San Francisco's other free agents, the one who appears most likely to return is Ross, though he'd have to accept considerably less than the $6.3 million he earned this season.
Free agents: Beltran, Ross and Burrell, OF; Cabrera, SS; Guillermo Mota, RHP; Mark De Rosa, INF; Lopez, LHP.
Eligible for arbitration: Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Ramon Ramirez, Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla, RHP; Nate Schierholtz and Andres Torres, OF; Jeff Keppinger, Emmanuel Burriss and Mike Fontenot, INF; Pablo Sandoval, 3B; Eli Whiteside, C; Jonathan Sanchez, LHP.
Club option: Affeldt, LHP, $5 million ($500,000 buyout).
Outfield: The Giants generated little offense from the top of the order last year, as their leadoff hitters ranked 15th in the National League with a .232 batting average and a .292 on-base percentage. Hence, their potential interest in players such as Crisp or Sizemore. The Giants could also use a proven hitter, especially if they can't -- or won't -- re-sign Beltran. Otherwise, they'll have to hope that Brandon Belt or Aubrey Huff arrives in Spring Training ready to rip.
Relief pitching: Attrition threatens to weaken San Francisco's bullpen, since Lopez and Mota are free agents and either Casilla or Ramirez -- both of whom are arbitration-eligible -- could be non-tendered for economic reasons. If the Giants lose two or three relievers, they'll obviously need replacements.
Shortstop: The Giants hope that Brandon Crawford, who sparkled defensively but struggled offensively (.204) this year, can refine his stroke enough in the Arizona Fall League to become an adequate hitter. San Francisco still might seek a veteran to complement Crawford, though the list of free-agent shortstops is hardly impressive.
The Giants will enter the offseason with a budget of approximately $125 million. The virtually guaranteed raises for the myriad of arbitration-eligible performers will consume much of the payroll -- as will the $60.5 million owed in 2012 to Barry Zito ($19 million), Matt Cain ($15 milion), Huff ($12 million), Brian Wilson ($8.5 million) and Freddy Sanchez ($6 million).
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.