San Francisco Giants’ Bullpen Looking Like a Big Problem Early in the Season

Mar 31, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy (15) look on from the dugout against the Oakland Athletics at AT&T Park. The Giants won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 31, 2016; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants manager Bruce Bochy (15) look on from the dugout against the Oakland Athletics at AT&T Park. The Giants won 3-1. Mandatory Credit: Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports /

The San Francisco Giants are not off to quite the start they’d hoped for, and their bullpen has not been a stabilizing force for them yet.

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The San Francisco Giants spent a boatload of money in the offseason, $220 million to be exact, to upgrade their stable of starting pitchers. They needed to do that. The starting rotation in 2015, outside of staff ace Madison Bumgarner, was abysmal for the majority of the season, and that had to be addressed. Bringing in Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija has been a big help to that starting staff. Cueto has looked like the ace he’s always been advertised as, and Samardzija has already looked a lot better than he did for most of the season in 2015 with the Chicago White Sox.

That upgraded staff of starters was also supposed to help the bullpen as well, which was overused in 2015 as starters continuously failed to go deep into ballgames, and was noticeably gassed for a good portion of the year. So far in the year, as young as it is, that has not been the case.

San Francisco’s group of relievers has not been nearly as good as the team hoped they would coming into the season. Javier Lopez, who has long been the team’s most reliable reliever day in and day out, hasn’t looked like his old self. Lefties aren’t just getting hits off of him, they are even hitting home runs, as Los Angeles Dodgers’ rookie phenom Corey Seager did on Saturday night. Santiago Casilla, who has been a very solid closer for the last couple of seasons even through his cardiac attack moments, has already blown two save chances (although during one, there was a botched double play ball that could have ended the game), and the Giants have lost both of those games.

Hunter Strickland, hailed by many as the Giants’ closer of the future, has struggled to put hitters away at the same rate as in the past. While he’s struck out seven batters in 5.1 innings, he’s also allowed seven hits, four of which have come in two-strike counts. Last season, Strickland allowed 34 hits in his 55 appearances, and only 12 (35.3 percent) of those hits came with two strikes. Chris Heston, a starter last season and almost exclusively in his career before that, hasn’t yet assimilated to his new role as the Giants’ long man out of the bullpen. In four games and five innings, he’s allowed six runs on nine hits and six walks, and has allowed all three of his inherited runners to score.

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It’s not just the inconsistency that has hurt the Giants’ bullpen either. Flexor strains have bitten two key pieces to the relief pitching puzzle. Right-hander Sergio Romo is on the disabled list with the ailment, and fellow righty George Kontos will soon be joining him on the shelf. Kontos is tied for the team’s lead with eight appearances, and has earned the nickname “Everyday George” (a play on “Everyday” Eddie Guardado, a former big league reliever most known for his time with the Minnesota Twins who appeared in 60-plus games nine times) from beat writers.

There are bright spots that certainly shouldn’t be overlooked. Despite struggling a bit with his command, second-year lefty Josh Osich has been very good, save for one forgettable outing in Coors Field, where the term “forgettable outing” should be trademarked. Cory Gearrin, who made the opening day roster after an outstanding spring, has shown he can pitch almost as well as he can scowl. He’s allowed five baserunners and no runs in seven innings, and has induced a pair of groundball double plays. Known primarily as a right-hander specialist because of his unusual delivery and assortment of pitches, Gearrin has even shown he can get lefties out, retiring three of the four he’s faced (small sample size alert!).

And then there’s Derek Law, the young man who was called up for the first time to replace Romo. In his big league debut on Friday night against the Dodgers, he struck out the side to pitch around a one-out triple. In his second outing on Monday, he retired the side in order with a pair of strikeouts. Getting five strikeouts among your first six career outs isn’t bad at all. As other guys in the bullpen continue to struggle, Law’s role could be one that expands. A lot.

With Kontos heading to the disabled list, they’ll likely bring up another reliever to take his spot and keep an eight-man bullpen. Getting someone like Clayton Blackburn, a starting pitcher with (minimal) experience as a reliever, up to the big leagues could help take some of the pressure of other relievers. Blackburn can eat innings, and would allow manager Bruce Bochy to rest some of his more overworked throwers to rest a bit more often.

Of course, Blackburn, or anyone the Giants bring up, wouldn’t be the savior of the bullpen. The relievers also need some help from their starters a bit more. Bumgarner, who pitched seven or more innings 19 times in 32 starts last year, has yet to record an out in the seventh inning this year, and has been done after five innings twice in three starts (while battling a case of the crud, which hopefully he can kick soon). Samardzija’s pitched eight innings once, but has combined for 11.1 innings in his other two starts. Matt Cain and Jake Peavy, the fourth and fifth starters, are averaging under five innings per start between them, and Cain’s six-inning outing in his season debut is the longest either of them has lasted.

Cueto has been the only consistent inning-eater so far in this young campaign. He’s gone at least seven innings in all three of his starts, and has done so very effectively. Alongside Cueto, the Giants need their starting pitchers to step up and help out their buddies in the bullpen.

Next: Giants & The Week That Was: Week Two

Admittedly, it is still incredibly early in the season. Only 8.6 percent of the Giants’ season is officially in the books, and there’s still plenty of time to turn things around and get the ship going back in the right direction. Even with all this time left, there’s still certainly a reason to be concerned.