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2019 Giants bullpen preview

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This unit was the strength of the 2018 team, so the Giants brought them back for more

MLB: San Diego Padres at San Francisco Giants
Will Smith came up in my search for Mark Melancon so I used a picture of him instead, which is a good metaphor for the Giants closer position
Kiel Maddox-USA TODAY Sports

The biggest strength of the 2018 Giants was their bullpen, and — with apologies to Pierce Johnson — the core of that bullpen looks to be intact heading into 2019. But there are question marks about who the complementary pieces will be, and how they’ll perform. Let’s take a look at who we might see in the bullpen this year.

Longshots

Derek Law
Garrett Williams
Sam Wolff
Kieran Lovegrove

Law was taken off the 40-man roster this year, but he cleared waivers and is still in the organization. He won’t make the team out of camp, but a strong showing during the season could put him back on the radar, again.

The same goes for this whole list. Williams and Wolff both struggled quite a bit in Richmond last year. Williams bounced back and forth between starting and relieving without much success in either role, while Wolff, recovering from surgery to repair a right flexor tendon tear from August 2017, was never quite right. Both, however, have good, live arms and the kind of stuff that could carry them to the majors, if they can just harness it.

Lovegrove, who signed a minor league deal with the Giants after spending seven years in the Cleveland organization, is coming over after his best season as a professional. He had a breakthrough in hi-A last year, got moved up to AA where he pitched well, and he is now on the radar in San Francisco. He’s a power arm who sits 95-96, and as long as he can continue with the progress he made last year, he’s going to make some 40-man decisions real difficult.

He also makes funny faces and tweets about them with typos that make him feel “seriously embarrassed.”

So you’re saying there’s a chance

Fernando Abad
Trevor Gott
Steven Okert
Travis Bergen
Tyler Beede

The Giants fired up the ol’ Scrap Heap Pickup machine, turned the crank a few times, and out came Fernando Abad. The lefty has pitched for the Astros Nationals, A’s, Twins, and Red Sox, and has a career 3.65 ERA (111 ERA+). Maybe I’m underrating the odds of him making a contribution by putting him here, but when you have a 33 year old coming off a PED suspension, he’s gonna have to do some convincing.

Gott was DFA’d by the Nationals and traded to the Giants for cash. He’s a hard thrower with a good sinker who has had trouble in the majors since 2017, but on the other hand, maybe he’ll be good now. Maybe He’ll Be Good Now: the slogan for the 2019 Giants!

Okert has been up and down with the Giants since 2016. He had a very rough 2017 and a mostly decent 2018, but as a lefty with several lefties above him on the depth chart, it’ll be tough for him to make the roster. Further complicating things for Okert is Travis Bergen, also a left-handed reliever and one of the Giants’ two Rule 5 picks this year. To stick in the organization, Bergen would have to stay on the roster all year, which isn’t impossible (the team is planning on carrying three left-handed relievers, after all), but is bad news for Okert, and would possibly mean a spring trade of one of the Giants’ more established relievers.

Beede, meanwhile, is impossible to project as a definite contributor and just as impossible to project as a definite non-contributor. He had a very tough 2018 in both the majors and minors, significantly dimming his prospect luster, but a good showing from him makes it possible that he’ll earn a spot with the big league team.

Will be up at some point

Ty Blach
Ray Black

The Blac* duo couldn’t be more different as pitchers. Ray Black is a right-handed pure power pitcher, consistently hitting triple digits with his fastball. Ty Blach is...not that. But for all the unsexiness that comes with being a left-handed finesse guy, Blach did a perfectly swell job out of the bullpen last year. His ERA was 3.17, his FIP was 3.29, and he avoided his Achilles heel as a starter: facing lineups more than once.

Black, on the other hand, was up and down. After finally hitting his stride in the minors after so many injuries in his career, he got called up to the majors in early July, gave up three runs in his first outing, and then didn’t give up a hit over his next 10.1 innings. Something happened after that, though, and whether it was the league figuring him out or a little bit of fatigue seeping into that arm as it passed 40 innings for the first time in his career, suddenly he was getting hit hard. Black gave up multiple runs in three of his next five outings, got sent to the minors, got called back up in September, and had some more mixed results.

How much will they be used this year and how effective will they be? Who knows? Blach has a high floor and Black has a high ceiling, so they’re both valuable in their own way. It seems pretty likely that they’ll both see big league innings this year, but right now we don’t know what their specific roles will be.

Will almost certainly make the team

Pat Venditte
Nick Vincent
Someone who will spend all of Spring Training competing for the fifth starter spot and then make the team as a reliever and then he’ll give some quote like, “Of course it’s not disappointing. Being on a big league roster is never disappointing,” while feeling incredibly disappointed

Venditte signed a major league contract, and the Giants are eager to see what he can do. It’s no sure thing that he’ll start the year on the roster, though. His contract is for barely above the major league minimum, and so if the team doesn’t like the way he throws the ball in Arizona, after they have him throw the ball with his other hand just to make sure, they could keep him off the roster without taking a big financial risk. It’s not what I’m hoping for, because he’s a switch pitcher, which is incredible, but we can’t act like that’s off the table.

Vincent, as of Thursday evening the most recently signed Giant, is just a good reliever. He shouldn’t have had to resort to a minor league deal, but he did, and the Giants got a solid bullpen arm for the low, low price of Way Less Than He’s Worth. The Padres traded him to the Mariners just before the 2016 season started, and after three years in Seattle, two of which were fine and one of which was excellent, the Mariners non-tendered him. He’s a good pitcher and he’s a cheap pitcher, and it would be very surprising if the Giants couldn’t find a spot for a good, cheap pitcher.

Right now, the depth chart for the rotation on the Giants website has seven guys listed. Assuming they stay healthy, Madison Bumgarner, Derek Holland, and Jeff Samardzija are going to be starters. Drew Pomeranz is likely to be there too, though a poor performance in Spring Training could push him to relief. That leaves Dereck Rodriguez, Andrew Suarez, and Chris Stratton all fighting for that last spot, and the team’s already been hinting that they’ll use both minor league options and the major league bullpen as a way of limiting their innings.

If you’re wondering how they’ll perform as relievers, it’s an open question with all of these guys. Venditte’s results in the majors in his career have been more down than up — he has a 0.0 career fWAR in 64.2 innings — but he’s also unique, which makes ONE WEIRD TRICK TO MAKE YOU A RELIEF SUPERSTAR way more plausible. Vincent was reliably excellent in his four season with the Padres, but he didn’t quite hit those highs over his last few years in Seattle, though he was still a quality bullpen arm. As for the starters, it’s anyone’s guess. Stratton’s 3.1 innings of relief last year were miserable, Rodriguez’s 6.1 were solid, and Suarez has only appeared out of the bullpen twice as a professional.

Locks

Sam Dyson
Mark Melancon
Reyes Moronta
Tony Watson
Will Smith

So here’s the caveat on calling these guys locks: One of them (or more!) could still be traded before the season starts. As much as Bryce Harper remaining unsigned has famously held up the outfield market, Craig Kimbrel remaining unsigned has done just as much to delay the Giants’ ability to trade one of their better veteran relievers. There have been trade rumors all offseason about Watson and Smith and while a deal hasn’t materialized yet, that doesn’t mean that it won’t. Dyson’s name has popped up in rumors too; he’s under team control through the 2020 season, but the team pays him in money and therefore it’s easy to assume that he’s on the block.

That said, assuming none of this group is traded, they’ll all be on the roster, and they should all be reasonably effective. Melancon hasn’t lived up to the expectations brought on by his contract, but last year he had a 121 ERA+ and a 3.39 FIP; those weren’t great numbers, but they do indicate a reasonably effective pitcher. Dyson bounced back beautifully from a tough 2017, Moronta had a fantastic rookie season marred only by some trouble with walks, Watson’s first year as a Giant was exactly what the team hoped it would be, and Smith had a career year.

At least one of these guys is going to slip up in 2019 (the combination of Young Pitcher With Control Issues and I Have Irrational Confidence Whenever He’s On The Mound make me think it’s Moronta, though that just could not be less scientific), but on the whole it’s a strong core who should continue to perform well in 2019.