Puig's success forces Giants to rethink how to spend this winter
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SAN FRANCISCO – You don’t level and rebuild a team one year removed from a World Series title. But you don’t simply patch over a last-place club, either.

The Giants have hard questions to ask themselves this winter. And perhaps some of their answers will be found across oceans.

The club’s scouting department is being mobilized like never before, according to sources. Even Pat Burrell has a plane ticket to Tokyo as the Giants get as many eyes as possible on Masahiro Tanaka, the 24-year-old right-hander who throws in the upper 90s, dazzled for Japan in the World Baseball Classic and is expected to be posted by the Rakuten Golden Eagles in a few months. (He’s 18-0 with a 1.15 ERA this season.)

The Giants also hope to be involved on Jose Abreu, the 26-year-old power-hitting first baseman widely regarded as Cuba’s top offensive player. Abreu, a right-handed hitter, is in the process of establishing residency in Haiti or Mexico and could double the average annual value of the seven-year, $42 million that the Dodgers gave Yasiel Puig last June.

And yes, absolutely, without any question, Puig’s stunning success is driving the Giants to rethink their approach to international free agents. Hyun-Jin Ryu, too. And Oakland’s Yoenis Cespedes as well.

“The risk and cost assessment has to be part of the equation,” Giants vice president Bobby Evans told me. “As for the rewards, you do look at what some of these recent high-risk signings have done. It does give you a sense of `This is the potential.’

“It does give you that desire to say, `Hey, can we get the next one?’”

With minor exceptions, the Giants haven’t signed a seasoned, big-splash international free agent since pitcher Osvaldo Fernandez, a Cuban defector who became a notorious bust (and had an even more notorious birth certificate) in the late 1990s. Perhaps colored by that experience, they decided the risk didn’t match the potential rewards when it came to international free agents like Puig, who was relatively untested but still signed for a huge guarantee.

Puig is tested now. So is Ryu. And they aren’t just having nice seasons. They are two sensations on a Dodgers club that rocketed past their archrivals in a blur and never looked back.

(How fast did that happen? Well, the Dodgers were in last place, 7 ½ games behind the Giants, on May 13. Since then, the Dodgers are 63-33 and the Giants are 36-59. We’ll save you the math: The Dodgers have been 26 ½ games better than the Giants in barely 3 ½ months.)

The game is changing, and the Dodgers were ahead of it. Now the Giants, no paupers in the payroll department, are trying to catch up.

The Giants aren’t the only team suddenly rethinking their approach to high-priced international free agents, and the reasons are manifold: 

1. It’s going to be a relatively thin free-agent market once again, which is not an accident. Teams are wrapping up their young stars more often, with Buster Posey’s extension this spring as one example. Fewer attractive players are hitting the market.

2. It isn’t just the big-market teams that have cash to spend. With all the revenue split from the league’s TV and Internet partnerships, even mid-level clubs have the dollars to chase free agents. That means demand is going up even as the supply dwindles, and you don’t need to be Milton Friedman to know what that means.

3. Although the posting system could change between MLB and Nippon Professional Baseball, the posting fee is not subject to the luxury tax, which means the big fish like the Yankees, Red Sox and Rangers can afford to go even deeper.

4. Cuban players over 23 years of age with at least three years of professional experience, once they are certified and establish residency in another country, are not subject to the international spending cap.

So the Giants will be one of many players in a crowded market. And the higher the costs, the greater the risk will be.

Tanaka (no relation to Triple-A Fresno outfielder Kensuke Tanaka) makes the most sense for the Giants, since he fits their pitching-and-defense philosophy and could bring a bevy of marketing opportunities as well.

The Giants’ rotation ERA has blown up to 4.51, better than only the Brewers and Padres in the National League. They’ll need another top-shelf starter along with Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner, especially since their best arms on the farm remain in A-ball and below.

It should be noted that not every big splash pans out. The hype was enormous back in 2007, when the Red Sox spent $103 million between the posting fee and a six-year contract to sign Daisuke Matsuzaka. The right-hander was 50-37 with a 4.52 ERA in 117 games.

Evans stressed that the Giants always did their homework on players like Cespedes and Puig, along with every other international free agent. Sources said they made a play for Jose Iglesias, now the dazzling defensive shortstop for the Detroit Tigers, in 2008 when he defected while his Cuban junior national team competed in Canada.

“We’ve always had information and we’ve done the diligence to consider those options,” Evans said. “We’ve been a part of it from the beginning. We were in discussions with (Hideo) Nomo and we signed Osvaldo Fernandez. We’ve been active in understanding all the relative options.

“But it does open eyes to see the success some of these guys have had. It does give you a little hope you might find that needle in the haystack.”