The first sounds of spring could be heard on Wednesday of last week. All you had to do was flip on the radio to once again hear the crack of the bat, the voices of Jon Miller and Dave Flemming on KNBR, and the inevitable drone of various players insisting on being in their best shape in years (also known as BSOHL). That’s right, actual, live baseball is back, and not a moment too soon.
With the starting rotation and starting lineup more or less set in stone, the most interesting battle to follow on the Giants this spring will be the all-out dogfight for the final bullpen spots. Last season, the Giants’ pitching staff was among the worst in the majors. Most of that blame, of course, could be lumped on the shoulders of starters Tim Lincecum, Ryan Vogelsong, Barry Zito, and, to a lesser extent, Matt Cain. The bullpen wasn’t any great shakes, either, though. Despite generally good work from closer Sergio Romo, and despite a decent-looking ERA of 3.30, the Giant bullpen ranked in the bottom half of the league in percentage of inherited runners allowed to score. Jose Mijares (who is now gone), George Kontos, and Jean Machi were particularly bad at stranding said baserunners.
The team did manage the second-fewest blown saves in the National League and were above-average in holds, so the bullpen wasn’t terrible, but some improvements can surely be made. Assuming the Giants enter the season with twelve pitchers, that means there are seven spots for relief pitchers. Romo, Javier Lopez, Jeremy Affeldt, and Santiago Casilla are all guaranteed spots on the Opening Day roster, and it seems a decent bet that Yusmeiro Petit, coming off the good vibes generated from his near-perfecto last year, will be handed the Guillermo Mota/Chad Gaudin honorary long man/mop up role. That leaves a cluster of pitchers, some who were with the team last year, and some who are non-roster invitees, fighting for two spots.
The Giants could go with safe options like Jean Machi and George Kontos, but the latter was awful last season and the former earned much of his shiny 2.38 ERA in low-leverage innings. As mentioned earlier, they were both pretty poor at keeping inherited runners from scoring, and that’s kind of a big part of a middle reliever’s job. Some might say the key part of the job. Groundball specialist Jake Dunning is another possible returnee, and the Giants might seek to use him in high-leverage, double play situations, but that exact profile tends to induce painful Scott Munter flashbacks in fans.
If the Giants want to buck safety and go with some higher-upside relief options, there are a handful of intriguing sleepers. Heath Hembree would seem to have the inside track on a middle relief spot. I discussed Hembree’s potential in greater detail a few weeks ago, but nutshell version: he throws hard and began being groomed for a setup or closer job the minute he stepped on a professional mound. Hembree didn’t allow a run (while striking out twelve batters) in nine late-season appearances in 2013. He’s been talked about for a while, and barring a spring implosion, he’ll almost certainly usurp one of the bullpen incumbents on Opening Day.
The other right-handed reliever making waves this spring is 23-year-old Derek Law, who was a ninth round pick by the Giants in 2011 and has flown under the radar until this year. Law hasn’t pitched a game above A-ball, but what he has done at that level has been staggering. In 2013, after being promoted for the first time to high-A San Jose, Law struck out 45 batters in 25.2 innings, while walking just one batter. That’s…not a typo. He also allowed just one home run. Needless to say, those peripheral numbers scream future closer, and Law has posted a 5.08 K:BB ratio in 140 minor league innings. The Giants probably want him to get more seasoning against tougher competition in AA or AAA, but it’s not out of the question that he might win a major league roster spot with an impressive Cactus League performance.
One more relative unknown turning heads early on is lefty Jose De Paula. The 26-year-old was claimed off of waivers from the Padres in the offseason, and has been drawing raves from both coaches and the Giants’ catchers due to his 93 mph heat and solid breaking ball. De Paula has never pitched higher than AA and owns a less-than-sparkling minor league resume, but he’s likely at least earned himself a spot in Fresno, where he could see a career renaissance as a LOOGY. Since Affeldt can get right-handed hitters out, the Giants have been able to employ three left-handed relievers in their pen the past two seasons, and that might open up a shot for De Paula if he continues to show good stuff and command in the next few weeks.
Rounding out the other bullpen contenders are lefty Dan Runzler and journeyman sinkerballer Kameron Loe. Runzler has had his career torpedoed by control problems, but he’s apparently entered spring looking like a new man. He throws really hard from the left side, so if he can ever tame the walks, he’ll have a career. Loe had a couple of effective seasons as a worm-killing specialist in Milwaukee, but now he’s trying to salvage his career after a truly miserable 2013 season (in which he gave up 11 home runs in 26 innings…yuck!). If the Giants are actually intent on having a ground-balling reliever of his ilk on the opening roster, Loe will battle it out with Dunning. If the Giants value experience over upside, Loe has the edge.