The San Francisco Giants have struggled on the starting pitching front (their starters have the sixth-highest ERA in MLB) for the majority of the year, and it’s starting to become an epidemic. Well, at least to their bullpen.
San Francisco’s bullpen has been relatively consistent in 2013. It has the fifth-best ERA in the National League with a 3.10 mark, which is lately due to the contributions of Sergio Romo (2.52 ERA), Javier Lopez (1.69), Jean Machi (2.33), Jeremy Affeldt (2.49) and Jose Mijares (2.31). You can even throw Chad Gaudin into the mix. However, with Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito both skating on thin ice, Gaudin seems poised to remain in San Francisco’s rotation.
So, the Giants don’t lack for quality arms in their ‘pen, but it’s the final pieces who have been jumbled around due to a lack of consistency. The Giants sent George Kontos down on Wednesday, recalling Sandy Rosario.
A couple weeks ago, Ramon Ramirez was called up, but he was designated for assigment on Thursday. Jake Dunning, who has compiled a 1.75 ERA in 23 games at Fresno, will replace him.
Not to single anyone out, but both Kontos and Ramirez have hindered the Giants. Prior to his demotion, Kontos had a 5.76 ERA. As for Ramirez, after surrendering three runs on Wednesday, he has a 11.12 ERA in just 5.2 innings of work. He’s allowed two home runs, walked five and given up nine hits in his six appearances.
With Santiago Casilla not expected to return until after the All-Star break after having surgery to remove a cyst in his right knee, the Giants don’t have a surplus of alternatives.
The Giants’ pitching depth in the minor leagues became slightly thinner after Shane Loux underwent Tommy John Surgery on Wednesday. Loux wasn’t one of the team’s critical assets in the minors, but his experience and versatility makes him an asset, which is mainly why he was considered to replace Ryan Vogelsong in the rotation. He had a 4.97 ERA in 19 appearances for the Giants in 2012.
Among the other alternatives: Dan Runzler, Steve Edlefsen and Brett Bochy. But the more intriguing name of the bunch is Heath Hembree, a hard-throwing right-hander.
Hembree posted a 4.50 ERA in Spring Training, and in 27 appearances with the Fresno Grizzlies this year, he has a 3.38 ERA. More telling, he has 32 punch outs and just eight walks in 29.1 innings. His minuscule walk total paints one picture: his fastball command has been excellent. But if you dial up his scouting report from anywhere, that doesn’t always hold true. The book on him indicates that he can be a bit wild.
Hembree’s fastball levels out in the mid-90s. He can occasionally run it up to the 96-98 MPH range, which would be a fresh of breath air for a Giants bullpen that ranks 28th in baseball with an average fastball speed of 90.7 MPH. Velocity isn’t the end-all-be-all, but the Giants are starved for your traditional hard-throwing arm. Casilla generally assumes that role, but he’s on the DL.
If we’re solely talking MPH, Rosario and Ramirez’s presences would spike the Giants’ average. Both can occasionally hit 94 MPH, but in the effectiveness department? Not so much.
So, with all of these positive traits and a Giants bullpen that’s struggled lately, why isn’t Hembree in the majors?
For one reason: They don’t want to call him up and send him down a week or two later. They want him to be completely ready. Bouncing between the majors and minors isn’t a surefire way to destroy a pitcher’s confidence, but it’s not the ideal route either.
Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area also notes that the Giants don’t want to promote Hembree until they know he’ll permanently stay in a late-inning relief role, mainly due to the reasons I outlined above. Baggarly hinted that Hembree could be used as trade bait, and with a few rough outings at the major league level, his value would be squashed, at least to a certain degree.
It’s worth noting that the Giants don’t have a ton of expendable prospects to begin with. Kyle Crick and Clayton Blackburn, a pair of right-handers, aren’t close to sniffing the big leagues. Gary Brown is rapidly creeping closer to the “bust” category, and Joe Panik isn’t quite ready either.
So if the Giants are looking to make a trade this summer, having a couple of enticing prospects is obviously a must. Hembree is one of those few.
But at this point, the Giants could be sellers at the trade deadline. That’s a bit bold, yes. After all, they’re only three games back of the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West, which is by no means an insurmountable deficit. However, they’re 12-20 on the road, and the bullpen, along with the rotation, is becoming a concern.
So yes, it’s time for the Giants to infuse some fresh blood into their pitching staff. Promoting Heath Hembree would be a good start.
All stats courtesy of FanGraphs, MiLB.com and Baseball-Reference