Giants spring preview: Bullpen order should be set early

Giants spring preview: Bullpen order should be set early

SAN FRANCISCO — Finding a new closer was the main focus of the offseason after an NLDS meltdown back in early October. As it turned out, finding a new closer was just about the entire focus of the offseason.

Mark Melancon was the only significant winter addition for the Giants, signing a four-year, $62 million deal. Melancon should settle things down in the ninth and make life significantly easier for manager Bruce Bochy, but the addition doesn’t mean the bullpen is quite set.

Santiago Casilla, the closer who made Melancon so necessary, signed with the A’s in January. When he passes his physical, Sergio Romo will be a Dodger. Javier Lopez has been out of the headlines all offseason and is expected to retire. Combined, that’s 23 seasons of Giants experience that has walked out the door. 

“That's something you do miss,” Bochy said at the Winter Meetings. “I think we missed (Jeremy) Affeldt last year, a little bit, his experience. He was part of the glue to the bullpen. So I thought we missed him at times, not just what he did on the mound but the leadership that he provided for that bullpen. But we feel like we have some really good arms that can fill those holes.”

Melancon won’t just be counted on in the ninth. He’ll need to fill some of the leadership gap, and the early indications are positive. Giants employees who spoke to Melancon after his signing came away gushing about how he wants to have the same kind of impact on the organization’s young pitchers that Hunter Pence has had on position players. His offseason work with top prospect Tyler Beede shows it wasn't just talk. Veterans like George Kontos and Will Smith are expected to lead the way as well. 

Those three are locks for the opening day bullpen, as are several others. It shouldn't be long before all the pieces are in place. After Melancon signed, Bochy said he wants to have the other late-inning roles settled relatively early in camp. Pitchers and catchers report to Scottsdale Stadium on Monday. 

“I do want to get more conventional,” Bochy said. “I know pitchers like to know when they're coming in, and I think they're a little more comfortable or even confident knowing what role they have. This mix and match can be tough on those guys."

Bochy has had a long winter to think about the setup of his bullpen. He said he’ll sit down with pitching coach Dave Righetti and the relievers early in camp to set some defined roles. That should go over well with a group that didn’t always appreciate last season’s ambiguity. 

“I would like to stay away from, ‘All right, we're competing for this (inning),’” Bochy said. “Because I want these guys getting ready in the spring and I want them using all their pitches and getting ready.”

Here’s a look at the relief candidates who will be in camp when pitchers and catchers report Monday … 

THE MAIN PIECES: 

Mark Melancon, Cory Gearrin, George Kontos, Derek Law, Will Smith, Hunter Strickland: It’s hard to picture an opening day bullpen without any of these guys. Gearrin didn’t play a prominent role after getting hurt last season, but he was Bochy’s eighth-inning guy at one point in the first half and he’s out of options. Bochy likes Kontos in the sixth inning. Smith will be the late lefty. Expect either Law or Strickland to settle into that eighth inning. 

Steven Okert, Josh Osich: They’re right next to each other on the roster, and probably competing for just one job. Okert impressed in a September cameo. Osich is as dominant as any Giant when he’s on his game, but he’s coming off a down year and minor surgery. 

ON THE 40-MAN ROSTER: 

Chris Stratton, Albert Suarez: They’re in a pretty similar position. Both spent time in the big leagues last season, with Suarez putting forth a run as a pretty reliable spot starter. They would need injuries to open up a fifth starter/long reliever gig, but there’s also another way they could come into play. Bochy will certainly take advantage of the new 10-day disabled list to rest some of his big league relievers, so the versatile pitchers in Sacramento (both of these guys can start or relieve) should see extra time. 

Chase Johnson, Reyes Moronta and Dan Slania: These three right-handers were added to the roster in November. Johnson transitioned to relief last season while Slania went the other direction and found a ton of success. Moronta piles up strikeouts with a fastball that has hit triple digits, but he hasn’t pitched above High-A yet. 

Ray Black: The man who has hit 104 mph is back in camp. The strikeout numbers are still ridiculous, but he walked a batter per inning last season in Double-A. 

Ian Gardeck: Another 100-mph arm, he looked to be on the fast track before Tommy John hit. He’s nearly a year out from the elbow procedure, but most of this season will likely be dedicated to rehab work. 

NON-ROSTER INVITEES: 

Carlos Alvarado, Jose Dominguez, Roberto Gomez, Bryan Morris, Neil Ramirez, Matt Reynolds, Kraig Sitton: Most of these guys are coming off seasons in the minors. You might remember Dominguez, who has a big-time fastball, from his Dodgers days. He’s also pitched for the Rays and Padres. Morris had a 3.06 ERA for the Marlins last season before surgery to repair a herniated disk. Ramirez is coming off a rough year, but he’s not all that far removed from posting a 1.44 ERA for the Cubs in 2014. Reynolds made eight appearances for the Giants last season. Bochy and Righetti's history says they'll find at least one 2017 contributor from this group. 

WILD CARD:

Matt Cain or Ty Blach: These two will compete for the fifth rotation spot, with Cain going into camp as the frontrunner. If Blach can't win the spot, he'll likely have to wait it out in Triple-A, but he did show in the postseason that he would be comfortable coming out of the bullpen. A spot as a long reliever, or even middle-innings lefty, can't be ruled out. Fitting Cain into the bullpen would be a bit more difficult, but the Giants aren't going to just cut bait with their longest-tenured player, so there's a chance he ends up in the 'pen at some point if he can't stick in the rotation. 

Giants call up infield/outfield prospect Ryder Jones, DFA Aaron Hill

Giants call up infield/outfield prospect Ryder Jones, DFA Aaron Hill

SAN FRANCISCO — The rebuild/reload kicked up a notch Saturday morning when the Giants called up one of their more intriguing prospects. 

Power-hitting 23-year-old Ryder Jones was added from Triple-A Sacramento, taking the roster spot of Aaron Hill, who was designated for assignment. Jones will primarily play third base, but he can also handle first base and the outfield. He is a prospect Bruce Bochy has always liked because of his power potential and he has broken through this season, his first in Triple-A. 

Jones was batting .299 with 10 homers and 16 doubles in 53 games for the River Cats. The knock on him has always been a lack of patience at the plate, but he has upped his on-base percentage to .390, a jump of 99 points from his 2016 season in Double-A. In June, Jones had put together a .343/.450/.701 slash line. 

Jones was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft, one round after Christian Arroyo. He is one of the organization’s more physical prospects, standing 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, with an emerging power stroke and the athleticism to handle the outfield. 

For a while this season, it looked like left field would be Jones’ best shot at a spot. But Austin Slater is locked in there and the Giants have an opening at third, with Hill now gone, Eduardo Nuñez on the disabled list, and Conor Gillaspie struggling. Jones should get at least a week or two there to show what he can do, and his new manager is among those looking forward to it. 

“His confidence has really grown,” Bochy said of Jones last week. “He’s a power threat. He’s a guy I’m watching. He’s a guy we don’t have here, who has a lot of power.”

Down on the Farm: Is there a two-way star in MLB's future?

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AP

Down on the Farm: Is there a two-way star in MLB's future?

This game is supposed to be hard. Somehow in the 2017 MLB Draft, two of the top prospects have so much talent they put teams in a tough spot. 

High School phenom Hunter Greene and University of Louisville star Brendan McKay were both options to go No. 1 overall to the Minnesota Twins. The only question with them was, where would they play? No, this isn't because the two are DH-type players who can't stay on the field. Instead, the two are marvels at the plate and on the mound, making the idea of a possible two-way MLB star, start to seem real. 

“I think it’s really just that hard," says Sacramento River Cats pitcher Michael Roth. "I don’t really know if that’s possible." 

If it was up to Roth, he would have made MLB scouts fret over what to label him as well. Roth, who wound up as a College World Series legend on the mound for South Carolina, came to the school with intentions of a career at first base. 

The most games Roth appeared in as a hitter in college were 17 as a senior. He batted .211 that season and the lefty wound up going to the Angels in the ninth round of the draft after completing one of the greatest college careers ever as a pitcher.

As strictly a pitcher, and serving as both a starter and reliever, Roth knows the rigors he must put in before a game. This is hours of work, all prior to a three-hour game. 

"From a pitcher’s perspective, I know how much work goes into honing our craft and you’re never perfect," said Roth. "I mean, you’re always working on it and there’s still something each day that you don’t think you did well enough."

With his past of a former two-way player himself in college who focused more on offense when first arriving on campus, Roth says the same when it comes to position players. 

"I mean they have to put time into honing their craft whether it be on the field fielding ground balls or taking fly balls in the outfield and then taking swings. And it’s a lot of work,” Roth continues. 

For Greene and McKay, the numbers speak for themselves. Maybe they really are the ones.

Greene, a 6-foot-4 right-handed pitcher and shortstop, hit .324 with six home runs in 30 games as a senior at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. On the mound, with a fastball that can touch 102 miles per hour, Greene allowed a total of three earned runs in 28 innings pitched with 43 strikeouts.

Maybe he is the one.

College baseball's Colossus of Clout put up numbers among the best bats and arms in the country for the Cardinals. McKay led Louisville to the College World Series where his amateur career ended in a 4-3 loss to TCU, going out with a bang as he bashed his 18th home run of the year, 20 rows deep into the right-field bleachers. He finished his junior year at the plate hitting .341 with 18 home runs. His pitching stats weren’t far behind, going 11-3 as he posted a 2.56 ERA and struck out 146 in 109 innings pitched. 

McKay is the only person to win the John Olerud Award, given to the top two-way college baseball player in the country, more than once. He won it three straight years, every single season of his college career. 

Maybe he is the one. 

These are two supreme athletes at 17 years old (Greene) and 21 (McKay). They have not peaked and theoretically can only improve their bodies in the next few years. That’s not the problem.  

“As a pitcher, we’re constantly doing things for our body and same thing for position players,” Roth said. “That’s the biggest thing, recovery. 

“I remember days where I would actually pitch and hit sometimes. I would start on a Friday and then every once in a while on Sunday I would get the DH spot in college and at DH sometimes I could feel on the follow through of my swing, I was tight in my shoulder. Things like that can inhibit your swing.” 

On draft night, Greene went No. 2 overall to the Reds while McKay was selected No. 4 overall by the Rays. Officially, Greene was announced as a right-handed pitcher and McKay a first baseman. Maybe their way to the majors is a one-way street. But maybe in the case of Greene or McKay, there's a two-lane road.

Roth is running down the path of a realist. Don’t mistake him for a pessimist. Like any other baseball fan or player that grew up throwing as hard as they could and trying to hit balls to sights unseen, he wants to see a two-way star in the bigs. 

“I just don’t know how it would really work. Obviously, they’d have to be a specimen too,” Roth said before he smiles with a short laugh and says, “I think that would be really cool if someone could do it because that means they’re a freak. That would be cool, but tough.”

All it takes is one.