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.
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.
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.