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Relievers who might interest the Giants

It’s not sexy, but somebody has to write this post.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

At some point, the San Francisco Giants will turn their attention away from the top of the free agent market. Not to look for more offense, but to fill out their bullpen in hope of improving the 8th-best bullpen in the National League last year, despite throwing the third-most innings.

But we know the Giants well enough to know that they’re not going to get just anybody, and that some of the better (and pricier options are already off the board.

Martin turned a 1.46 ERA with a 12.4 K/9 in 24.2 IP with the Dodgers into a big two-year deal with the Red Sox, building on a nice six-year career. He’ll also turn 37 in June, so a combination of experience and being on the Dodgers surely helped him.

So, before you go thinking the Giants wouldn’t have considered Martin because of his age, recall that there was a report of their interest in Kenley Jansen... before he ultimately signed with the Red Sox, too. That suggests that the Giants — at least this offseason — aren’t looking to limit their search to a certain age range or maybe even a certain price point.

Over the last few years, it’s been clear that the strategy is to limit spending on the bullpen as much as possible. Jake McGee and Dominic Leone have been two of the higher paid players, and they earned about $2.5 million. That makes sense because relievers are always the worst players on the roster, highly volatile year over year, and if not easily than able to be replaced at any point in an offseason and early in the season.

Another aspect of their bullpen management has been a particular skill set: 94-95 mph fastballs with 2500+ RPM-slider guys. Great sliders are tough to hit. Effective sinkers or fastballs, too. Scout properly and sequence right, and it’s possible to “coach up” pitchers into providing “surplus value” through their performance versus the cost. John Brebbia, Dominic Leone, and Zack Littell all fall under this umbrella and they all had varying degrees of success in the Giants’ pitching program.

After looking over the list of major league free agents and using Statcast to filter by slider spin rate (2500-3000 RPM) by all relievers since 2015, I’ve come up with a list of relievers the Giants might be looking at right now (please note: this is by no means exhaustive):

Brad Brach
Cam Bedrosian
Brad Boxberger
Miguel Castro
Jhoulys Chacin
Steve Cishek
Michael Fulmer
Mychal Givens
Heath Hembree
Jeff Hoffman
Luke Jackson
Josh James
Kenley Jansen
Dominic Leone
Michael Lorenzen
Trevor May
Reyes Moronta
Scott Oberg
Adam Ottavino
Alex Reyes
Garrett Richards
David Robertson
Hansel Robles
Bryan Shaw
Hunter Strickland
Art Warren
Matt Wisler
Jimmy Yacabonis

23 reliever deals in total have already been made, 4 from this list: Kenley Jansen, David Robertson, Miguel Castro, and Jimmy Yacabonis. For obvious reasons, let’s also strike Hunter Strickland and Dominic Leone from consideration — even though Leone would be a guy they’d pounce on if he had his 2022 with some other team. That whittles it down to 22.

Luke Jackson might miss a lot of the season because of Tommy John surgery. Art Warren will miss it because of elbow surgery. Scott Oberg’s career appears to be over after a string of medical emergencies involving blood clots. Brad Bach and Cam Bedrosian only pitched in the minors last year and were bad. Hansel Robles was bad, even after spending some time in the Dodgers minor leagues.

Jhoulys Chacin and Heath Hembree (who was a Dodger for a time!) both had ERAs over 7 and 4.0+ BB/9 with sub-8 K/9. Alex Reyes didn’t pitch in 2022 because of a frayed labrum. Suppose the Giants could take a flier on him if he’s available, but for now, let’s not concern ourselves with focusing on a player in that situation. That leaves 12.

Rather than go through each one, I’ve organized them into three tiers: Already Good, Inject Him With Bannister, Worth Considering.

Already Good

The way organizes their free agent section is by WAR totals over the past three seasons. Using their list and our filter for this article, the top five are:

Michael Fulmer (2.2 - age 30)
Adam Ottavino (1.6 - age 37)
Brad Boxberger (1.5 - age 35)
Garrett Richards (1.3 - age 35)
Matt Wisler (1.3 - age 30)

Some of Fulmer’s value looks deceptive to me. He was a starting pitcher from 2016-2020, missing 2019 because of Tommy John surgery. After coming back, it looks like he struggled to regain that form (75 GS, 456 IP, 8.2 fWAR) so he moved to the pen. In 2021, he registered 14 saves in 69.2 innings (1.5 fWAR) and was good enough (0.7 fWAR) in 2022 to be a trade at the deadline (from the Tigers to the Twins).

His Statcast top line looks pretty average but his 94.5 mph average sinker velocity and a slider with .269 wOBA looks like an effective combo. He also has a changeup which looks to register a decent whiff rate, so if nothing else, he’s got a good track record and the possibility of getting even better with the right pitch sequencing.

Ottavino had a stellar year (65.2 IP, 10.8 K/9, 1.1 fWAR) and there are so many red bars on his Statcast page (red bars on Statcast pages are good) that he’ll probably be priced too far out of the Giants’ comfort zone on relievers (greater than $2.5 million). And his age might also push him just beyond the range of their comfort zone (if we consider Jansen to have been the upper bound there).

Boxberger had an 80% LOB rate along with a 9.6 K/9 and 0.8 HR/9 pitching for Milwaukee. The Rangers cut Richards in August, but his spin rate and fastball velocity are right in that Brebbia-Leone-Littell zone and his 3.46 FIP (5.27 ERA) paired with a 7% walk rate and 0.6 HR/9. Matt Wisler pitched for the Rays. Although he does have a red flag in terms of a velocity dip.

Inject Him with Bannister

Brian Bannister is the Giants’ Lord of Pitching and has (along with Andrew Bailey) continued the Giants’ solid track record across all regimes over the past 30 years of coaching up relievers. These guys are all pretty good in some way or good at some point and would probably fit not just for their talent profile but projected cost.

Josh James
Michael Lorenzen
Trevor May
Jeff Hoffman

Josh James is, essentially, a massive injury red flag. He might very well be unable to pitch in 2023, but if he’s able to make himself available before the season, several teams will be in on him. Here’s a snippet from an article after the Astros non-tendered him recently:

James made his Major League debut in 2018, pitching 23 innings across six games (three starts) with a fastball that topped out at 101.1 mph. He made two appearances against the Red Sox in the American League Championship Series that year, striking out five batters in 3 2/3 innings in relief in Game 4. James made his first Opening Day roster in 2019, striking out 14.7 batters per nine innings — the fifth-best mark by a rookie reliever in Major League history — and posting a 4.70 ERA in 49 games.

A lat strain sidelined him most of last season, on top of hip surgery in 2020 and hamstring and back injuries in the months following it. If biomechanics are a part of the pitching program (and I believe they are), then perhaps the Giants see an opportunity here. His power fastball-slider combination would be potent in the middle of the bullpen. And he looks like he still has a minor league option available. Catnip for Zaidi.

Michael Lorenzen has the benefit of vaguely being a two-way player (he’s played the outfield and DH’d; .233/.282/.429 7 career HR). He lost a lot of fastball velocity between 2021 and 2022, but that’s because he went from being a reliever with the Reds to a starter with the Angels. This could be a reverse Kevin Gausman situation. In that case, he was a starter turned reliever whom they returned to the starting rotation. Here, it’d be a reliever turned starter who would become a reliever again. In 2021, he averaged 96.6 mph with the fastball and a 40% whiff rate on the slider.

May missed a lot of last season with right triceps inflammation, so his 3.87 FIP in 25 IP doesn’t look too great. But on the year, his velocity and slider spin held up pretty well compared to 2021, a season in which he was just a tough at bat. He was in the top 10% of the league in expected batting average, expected wOBA, strikeout rate (31.2%) and expected ERA (2.90).

Jeff Hoffman averaged 94.2 mph with his fastball last season and threw it 52% of the time for some reason. He threw his high spin (2,691 RPM) slider the least (23.7%) and had a 38.5% whiff rate with it. In 2021, the whiff rate on the slider was 44.5%. Here’s a look at it:

Looking at his pitching line and seeing the chance that a little coaching and resequencing with the arsenal could go a long way here, though the fastball velocity is a negative. It’s always been around 94.

Worth Considering

These are guys who are some version of good or the type of player the Giants seem to be looking for.

Reyes Moronta
Seth Lugo
Taylor Rogers

Would Zaidi entertain a return of Reyes Moronta? I don’t see why not. Two seasons removed from that gruesome-looking shoulder strain he suffered with the Giants at the end of 2019, he had a solid season with the Dodgers and Diamondbacks (37.2 IP, 9.1 K/9). He won’t average 97 mph with his fastball anymore, but 95 with a 2500 rpm slider will play, and that slider had a 46.5% whiff rate to boot. The walk rate is a little scary, too, but if he’s around come February, we might see a flier here.

Seth Lugo has interest from teams looking to convert him back into a starting pitcher. Now this post has nothing to do with siloing talent like that. The Giants could very well use him as a swing man, and the added bonus of doing this would be the third pitch he’d feature: a really nice curveball.

And Taylor Rogers, because of course. That’s Tyler’s brother!

Rogers had a rough 2022, though (4.76 ERA in 64.1 IP for the Padres and Brewers) his FIP, BB, K, and HR/9 were all close enough to his career averages. Statcast-wise, the .411 xwOBAcon (expected weighted on base average based on quality of contact) putting him near the bottom of the league, though he paired that with a top-10% of the league K rate (30.7%). He hits the Giants’ preferred 95 fastball-2500 slider model, too, although the sinker is actually closer to a 94 mph average.

He’ll be 32 and possibly in decline, but on a one-year deal (which you know the Giants will be looking to give out to any of these guys), it’ll be worth the risk.