San Francisco Giants: What About the Guys Around Melancon?

Oct 9, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Mark Melancon (43) celebrates after their win against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game two of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball series at Nationals Park. The Washington Nationals won 5-2.Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 9, 2016; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals relief pitcher Mark Melancon (43) celebrates after their win against the Los Angeles Dodgers during game two of the 2016 NLDS playoff baseball series at Nationals Park. The Washington Nationals won 5-2.Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports /

The San Francisco Giants made their big splash by signing Mark Melancon, but are the guy already in place good enough to improve the bullpen?

Things change pretty quickly in the baseball world. Think back to the San Francisco Giants’ bullpen during the 2014 World Series run. The “Core Four” was still in place, with veteran righties Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo combining with left-handers Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez to create a lockdown group of relievers.

But things have changed in just the two years since then. Affeldt retired after the 2015 season, and Casilla, Romo, and Lopez are all free agents and it looks more and more likely that none of the three will wear the orange and black again.

With those guys likely not back, the Giants needed to upgrade the bullpen this offseason. They did so, going out and spending $62 million on Mark Melancon to bring him to San Francisco. With that addition, Melancon immediately steps in and becomes “the guy” for the Giants and their bullpen. But what about the guys around him?

Even with all those veterans moving on, the Giants still have a good looking group of young relievers on the team to group with Melancon. They may no longer have a “Core Four”, but they do have a group of four that could become just as dominant as those guys.

Melancon will be the leader of the bullpen, taking on the ninth inning in efforts to close out the game, and three guys in front of him look like they can settle things in the late innings as well. Will Smith, Hunter Strickland, and Derek Law will be the main set-up guys, and all have the potential to be dominant forces coming out of the pen.

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Smith was a mid-season acquisition, and started very slowly for his new team after the trade. He finished extremely strong, not allowing a run over his last 18 appearances of the season. During that stretch, he struck out 20 batters in 13.2 innings while allowing just 11 baserunners. He also stranded all six baserunners he inherited. The walks were something of a problem for Smith as he walked 4.4 batters per nine innings with the Giants, almost a full walk over his career rate, but it’s not enough of a problem to completely override all the good he did for the Giants.

Smith is a left-hander, but is more than capable of getting right-handers out as well. His slider/curveball is, simply put, nasty, and is effective against hitters on both sides of the plate. Right-handers hit just .197 against Smith in 2016.

Law made his major league debut last April, and wasted almost no time in becoming one of the most reliable options in the Giants’ pen. In the first 61 appearances of his career, he pitched to a 2.13 ERA and 0.964 WHIP and held his opponents to a .215/.248/.322 slash-line. There was a stretch from July to August where he went 19 consecutive appearances without allowing a run.

If not for Tommy John surgery that cost him an entire year from June 2014 to June 2015, he could have already been “the guy” for the Giants. He already has the “future closer” tag on him, a tag he’s held for years, and he’s not far off from being, not just a go-to guy, the go-to guy for the Giants.

The 2014 postseason continues to haunt Strickland, and it’s almost impossible to talk about the big right-hander without that stretch being brought up in some way, shape, or form. But the truth is that Strickland is a very different pitcher from that time.

He is no “home run machine”. In 2016, he allowed 0.59 home runs per nine innings, and had a 7.8 percent home run per flyball rate. Both those numbers are well, well below league average, and among the best on the Giants’ team.

Strickland’s 2016 numbers were somewhat worse than his 2015 numbers, but he still had a quite a nice season. With continued seasoning and more work on off-speed pitches, Strickland’s role can continue to grow in the bullpen.

Besides that group of four, the Giants do have a nice array of complementary pieces. George Kontos is entering his sixth season with the Giants, making him the longest-tenured member of the bullpen, and has become a very solid option. With the Giants, he owns a 2.90 ERA and 1.124 WHIP over 250 games, and has made a great habit of working through other people’s messes.

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Cory Gearrin is back with the Giants after avoiding arbitration with a $1.05 million contract. His overall numbers weren’t great (4.28 ERA, 1.159 WHIP), but there were stretches where Gearrin was a dominant option out of the bullpen.

Over the first three months of the season, he pitched to a 3.14 ERA, 1.019 WHIP and held opponents to a .213 average, but should fatigue put him on the shelf for a stretch and hurt him terribly, numbers-wise. Between July and August, he allowed 11 runs in 7.2 innings while opponents hit .371. He bounced back with a strong September, allowing one run and four baserunners in 6.2 innings.

Gearrin isn’t the top option for the Giants, but if he can find the form that he had early in the season, or that he finished the season with, he can be a very good option.

Besides Smith, the Giants will assuredly keep another left-hander on the roster. Unless they make a signing over the offseason, that should be either Josh Osich or Steven Okert. After a strong rookie campaign in 2015, Osich had big control issues in 2016 when he allowed 4.7 walks per nine innings and threw just 57.6 percent of his pitches for strikes (Giants’ average in 2016 was 63.8 percent).

After the 2016 season ended, Osich revealed that he pitched through a large portion of the year with a tear in his patellar tendon, and he had undergone surgery to fix it. That is his plant leg in his motion, so maybe that can be contributed partially to his loss of control. He still owns incredible stuff, a high-90’s fastball with overpowering sink, and it’s way too early to give up on him.

Okert made just 16 appearances last season, his first taste of big league action, but he left a good impression. He pitched to a 3.21 ERA and struck out a batter per inning while showing fearlessness in attacking hitters. If Osich’s control problem persists, it could be an opening for Okert to make the opening day roster.

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On paper, this has the look of a group that can be very good next season. But the game isn’t played on paper. The Giants need the veterans do continue to stabilize the bullpen while the younger components continue to develop more. While this looks like a pretty good group, looks can be deceiving. Only their on-field play will determine if the Melancon signing was enough, or if more needed to be done.