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 spring training Day 42: Blach still in the fifth starter mix

Giants spring training Day 42: Blach still in the fifth starter mix

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Ty Blach is the young one in the race to be the fifth starter, but on Sunday he sounded like a veteran. Asked if he has gotten a hint one way or the other about his opening day role, Blach smiled.

“I’m just taking it day-by-day and trying to get better,” Blach said. “I’m enjoying the process and having fun.”

Smooth. 

Those days are adding up to a nice spring for Blach, the left-hander trying to unseat Matt Cain. While Bruce Bochy didn’t shed any additional light on the current lean, team officials hinted Sunday that this is not as open-and-shut as it seems. Matt Cain, who will start Tuesday, looked like a lock to be the fifth starter a week ago, but the Giants are considering all options because they have an off day during the first week and two more shortly thereafter. 

“We’ve had discussions every day,” Bochy said. “We’ve got some tough calls.”

The Giants are expected to announce their official rotation when they return home for the Bay Bridge Series. Whether he’s starting, long-relieving, or pitching in a completely new role, Blach has certainly done all he can to make sure he’s in the big leagues on April 2. He gave up two runs over six innings Sunday, walking one and striking out one while giving up seven hits. Blach has allowed 10 runs in 20 1/3 innings this spring, but four of those came when he was ambushed coming out of the bullpen one day.

“Wherever I’ll be, I know I’ll be in a good spot,” Blach said. “I’m just looking forward to getting the season rolling.

After pitching out of the bullpen most of the spring, Blach got his pitch count up to 85 on Sunday. 

“We’ve gotten him stretched out,” Bochy said. “That’s a solid, solid job. We’ve got guys stretched out where you want them. We’ve got some flexibility. We’ll see as we get close here which way we’ll go.”

POSITION BATTLES: The Giants will carry a backup for Denard Span, and for about a month it looked like Gorkys Hernandez would be that guy. But Hernandez has slumped so badly this spring that he went over the minor league facility Sunday to get a ton of extra at-bats, and Justin Ruggiano has emerged, reaching base in nine of his last 16 plate appearances. The plan a few days back was for Ruggiano to go to Sacramento and get 50 or so at-bats to see where he’s at, but this is another race that could change in the coming week. 

Cory Gearrin has done his part to hold off any charging relievers, throwing two sharp innings while going back-to-back for the first time this spring. 

FAMILIAR FACES: A rough day for a couple of longtime Giants. Ehire Adrianza and Gregor Blanco both have oblique injuries, hurting their odds of breaking with the Twins and Diamondbacks, respectively. Elsewhere, David Hernandez showed that he made a smart decision asking for his release. He was signed by the Braves. 

AROUND CAMP: Hunter Pence really does do all he can to make every single teammate feel welcome in the clubhouse. He spent some time with young right-hander Roberto Gomez on Sunday morning, learning a few Spanish phrases. When the players went out to warm up, Pence threw with Jae-Gyun Hwang. These are small gestures, but for the new guys, they matter. 

BARRY’S BACK: We all knew Barry Bonds would step into the cage at some point, and on a quiet Sunday morning, there he was. Bonds, 52, took about five or six easy hacks before crushing one out to deep right. He’s still got it. The other day, reporters asked Bonds if he could suit up in the WBC if asked. He said he can absolutely still hit, but he would need to DH and he would need a day or two off before games. Being a big league hitter is not easy, even if he always made it look that way.

 

Bonds dusts off swing, cracks home run during BP in Giants' camp

Bonds dusts off swing, cracks home run during BP in Giants' camp

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Giants knew Barry Bonds would step back into the box at some point. It happened Sunday, with Bonds taking a few cracks at BP pitches from Gary Davenport.

Bonds warmed up with a couple of lighter swings and then blasted a homer to deep right. That was enough, as the 52-year-old walked away with a big smile on his face. 

Bonds is in camp as a special instructor, and he still picks his spots to show off his legendary swing. When he was the Marlins' hitting coach last season, he beat slugger Giancarlo Stanton in an impromptu home run derby.