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. 

Crawford strains right groin in eighth inning of Giants' 2-1 loss to Dodgers

Crawford strains right groin in eighth inning of Giants' 2-1 loss to Dodgers

SAN FRANCISCO — Brandon Crawford was always going to miss the final two games of this series to attend the funeral of his sister-in-law. The Giants are now hoping an MRI result shows that Crawford won’t miss any time beyond his three days on bereavement leave. 

Crawford pulled up with a right groin strain as he rounded first on a base hit in the eighth. After jogging a bit in the outfield, he was pulled from the game. 

“It tightened up,” Crawford said. “I haven’t really felt anything like that before. I’ve never really had anything like this before. It just felt tight. I didn’t feel a pop or anything, and from what I hear, that’s good news.”

Crawford’s liner off Kenley Jansen sent Buster Posey from first to third. Cody Bellinger's throw went into third and Crawford was busting it for second when his leg shut down. He said he could feel the pain in his groin as he tried to run it off. 

“(Trainer Dave Groeschner) told me it wasn’t a great idea to try and push it,” Crawford said. 

Ordinarily, the Giants would send Crawford for an MRI on Wednesday, but he is flying down to Los Angeles for two days of services. Crawford originally told manager Bruce Bochy that he could be back in time for Friday’s game, but the Giants — already playing without Denard Span and with a short bench — were planning to put Crawford on the bereavement list and call up an extra position player. 

Eduardo Nuñez moved over to short in the ninth and he’s Crawford’s primary backup. Christian Arroyo, called up Monday, can also play the position. The Giants have Kelby Tomlinson and Orlando Calixte on the 40-man and one of them is likely to join the team Wednesday. 

--- Arroyo and Bellinger are two of the NL West’s top prospects, and they got their first big league hits on the same night. Arroyo got a first-pitch fastball at the letters from Clayton Kershaw and roped it into left field. 

“I figured he would come at me,” Arroyo said. “I said, ‘Hey man, see a heater and take a good swing at it.’ I just envisioned getting (a big league hit) but I didn’t think it would be off a guy the caliber of Kershaw. In the moment I was excited. That’s something you don’t forget.”

Arroyo’s family won’t forget it, either. His parents and two younger siblings were here and they went nuts as Arroyo rounded first. That’s always a cool moment. 

--- Ty Blach has three big league hits and all of them are off Kershaw. 

“Sometimes you just swing hard and get lucky, I guess,” he said. 

There’s only one active pitcher who has more hits against Kershaw than Blach. That’s Madison Bumgarner, who has taken him deep twice. A year ago, Bumgarner walked into the video room and asked Matt Duffy if he wanted advice on hitting Kershaw. On Tuesday, he gave Blach some advice. 

“Madison before the game came up and said he’s going to throw you up and in because he threw it low and away last (year),” Blach said. “I was looking for a pitch in that vicinity.”

Bumgarner knows Kershaw well. Blach got a fastball up and he knocked it over a drawn-in outfield for a double. 

--- We’re 10 paragraphs into this story without a score. The Giants lost 2-1, but it’s hard to dissect this one too much. When the Dodgers get 25 outs from Kershaw and Kenley Jansen, they’re going to win that game nine out of 10 times. 

Kershaw lowered his season ERA to 2.29. The Giants gave him a little bit of trouble early, but he turned it on in the middle innings. 

“He settled in and he was as tough as he normally is,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “The thing you hope is to create some chances. We had a couple.”

The eventual winning run came across on a strange play in the fourth. With runners on the corners, Adrian Gonzalez hit a bouncer to first. Posey looked Justin Turner back to third and then threw to Crawford at second for one out. Crawford spun and fired a strike home to try and get Turner, who had taken off. The throw skipped in the dirt and Nick Hundley couldn’t handle it. Turner made it 2-1, and that was that. 

Bochy said he had no problem with how that play went down. All the decisions were right, it was just a tough double-play to pull off. 

“I’d like to say I should have made a better throw but I got rid of it as fast as I could and I put as much on it as I could,” Crawford said. 

The Giants were a couple inches behind Turner on Tuesday. On Monday, they were just ahead of him, with Posey picking him off second to end the game. It’s been that type of series between these two.

--- I saw a lot of grumbling on Twitter about Yasmani Grandal pulling balls back into the strike zone in the late innings. Be careful what you wish for, Giants fans. Posey might be the best pitch-framer in the game. Any change that would keep guys like Grandal from fooling umps would hurt the Giants more than most.

 

Instant Replay: Kershaw quiets Giants again, Dodgers win 2-1

Instant Replay: Kershaw quiets Giants again, Dodgers win 2-1

BOX SCORE

SAN FRANCISCO — After taking the opener of this four-game series, manager Bruce Bochy said he felt the win was a huge one. 

“We’ve got our hands full tomorrow,” Bochy said Monday night. “We know it.”

Yes, as always with Clayton Kershaw, they did. 

The left-hander was once again dominant at AT&T Park, throwing seven sharp innings before turning the ball over to a bullpen that got four outs from Kenley Jansen. The closer wrapped up a 2-1 Dodgers win. As with Monday’s game, this one was a pitcher’s duel. 

Ty Blach threw 11 shutout innings against the Dodgers as a rookie and he opened up with three strong frames Tuesday. He also got the offense in gear, lashing a double over a drawn-in outfield in the third for his third career hit off Kershaw. Hunter Pence’s hustle turned a grounder to second into an infield hit, allowing Buster Posey to bat in the inning. Posey didn’t let his good friend’s effort go to waste, bouncing a single up the middle for the night’s first run. 

The Dodgers came right back to take the lead. Corey Seager opened the fourth with a walk and Justin Turner and Yasiel Puig singled. With runners on the corners and the game tied, Adrian Gonzalez hit a grounder right at Posey at first. He spun and fed Brandon Crawford for one out and Turner broke for home. Crawford’s throw came up a few inches short and Turner scored. 

Kershaw looked uncomfortable during an early at-bat, but he found his groove in the middle innings. He needed just seven pitches to get through the fifth and eight to set the side down in the sixth. After George Kontos left the bases loaded in the top of the seventh, Kershaw worked around a two-out single in the bottom of the inning. 

The Dodgers called on Jansen with two outs in the eighth and he immediately ran into trouble. Posey singled and Crawford followed with a liner into left that came with a price. Crawford pulled up as he rounded first and was removed with an apparent right groin injury. 

Starting pitching report: Blach’s return to the rotation: 5 innings, 4 hits, 2 earned runs, 1 walk, 2 strikeouts. Because he hasn’t started since spring training, a rising pitch count knocked him out a bit early.

Bullpen report: Kontos screamed and pumped his fist after blowing Andrew Toles away to end the seventh. Cory Gearrin had put a pair of Dodgers on and an intentional walk of Cody Bellinger loaded them up.

At the plate: Christian Arroyo’s first big league hit was a first-inning single off the best pitcher in the world. Kershaw threw Arroyo a first-pitch fastball at the letters and he smoked it into left. Arroyo’s parents and young siblings arrived in San Francisco in time to watch the moment. 

In the field: Crawford did Crawford Things, including a running catch way out in left field to rob Gonzalez of a bloop single. 

Attendance: The Giants announced a crowd of 41,329 human beings who tried the cell-phone-light rally with a runner on in the seventh. One pitch later, Pence grounded out. 

Up next: Johnny Cueto will try to get back on track. He had a 2.67 ERA in five starts against the Dodgers in his first season in the rivalry. Funky lefty Alex Wood goes for the other side.