Giants take aim at new closer as offseason begins

Giants take aim at new closer as offseason begins

SAN FRANCISCO — Bruce Bochy leaned back in his chair a few hours before Game 4 of the National League Division Series and pondered a reporter’s question. Who would pitch the ninth? Bochy smiled and said everyone would just have to wait and see. 

The answer turned out to be one not conducive to postseason success: All of them. 

Bochy turned to five relievers in the final inning of the season. The Giants gave up four runs and handed over the three-run lead that Matt Moore and an opportunistic lineup had built. Postseason teams had been 824-3 when taking a three-run lead into the ninth. The Giants became the first in 30 years to blow such an advantage. 

That kind of carnage will lead to changes, but general manager Bobby Evans said the Giants are not looking to “overhaul” their bullpen. They feel good about the young arms they have assembled, but it’s clear that the returning relievers need a leader for the ninth. 

“The bullpen performs at a much higher level when you know who your ninth-inning guy is,” Evans said. “It puts everybody at ease and helps Boch as he defines roles. With ambiguity, it creates tension and unknowns that can add to or detract from performance and ultimately lead to struggles. We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure we’re clear on who is finishing our games.” 

Evans said he would scour the free agent market, the trade market, and his own roster to try and find one man for the final three outs. The initial read in talks with team executives is that a trade may be the most likely option. There are three dominant relievers at the head of the offseason list, but the Giants would need to make an overwhelming offer to beat the Yankees, Cubs and others to Aroldis Chapman, the man who closed them out. They likely would have to hand a blank check to Kenley Jansen to pry him away the division rival Dodgers. 

That leaves Mark Melancon as the most likely target, and Giants who have gotten to know the veteran right-hander believe he would be a perfect fit in the clubhouse. Melancon is said to be a strong clubhouse presence, the type of quiet, ego-free worker who would fit right in alongside the Buster Poseys and Madison Bumgarners of the world. 

The 31-year-old had 47 saves for the Pirates and Nationals this season, posting a 1.64 ERA and 0.90 WHIP. He saved 51 games a year ago, with a 2.23 ERA. The year before that, it was 33 saves and 1.90. In short, he is the type of player who could walk into the clubhouse on Day 1 and lock down the ninth inning. 

The Giants made a hard push for Melancon at the trade deadline. Evans’ bid came up just short of Washington’s, and he has spent months asking himself if the Giants should have overwhelmed the Pirates. The Giants never had a realistic shot at Chapman or Andrew Miller, who has helped carry the Indians into the ALCS.

“There were instances where you were told you just don’t have enough to get active, like we have on the table from other folks,” said Brian Sabean, vice president of baseball operations. “We knew it was going to be 'how much pain from the minor leagues,' or maybe even the major league team as was the case with (Matt) Duffy. I know the effort was there. But again, you have to have a willing partner that thinks that you’re a good fit. 

“In every case that a closer didn’t come to the Giants, they went elsewhere for probably a lot more than we could have been involved in.”

Starting a few days after the World Series, the only issue will be the size of the offer. 

Team president and CEO Larry Baer said Thursday that “resources will be expended” to fill any holes. A year ago, Bochy asked management for innings-eaters. The front office went out and spent $220 million on Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, each of whom threw 200-plus innings. 

If the Giants can bring in a closer, they believe the rest of the bullpen will fall in line. 

Evans confirmed that he will tender a contract to George Kontos, who posted a 2.53 ERA in 57 appearances. Cory Gearrin may take over for Sergio Romo as a specialist against right-handers. The Giants have not ruled out reunions with members of the Core Four, but it is expected that Javier Lopez and Santiago Casilla will move on. Much of the talk Thursday revolved around young relievers Derek Law, Hunter Strickland, Steven Okert and Josh Osich. Will Smith is a lock for late-innings work. 

None of it worked Tuesday, but Bochy has not lost faith. He said the Giants “threw everything (we had) at them and that was the plan.” Bochy believes the 2016 struggles will prove a blessing in disguise for his young pitchers. The Giants talk often about the fact that guys like Lopez, Casilla and Jeremy Affeldt had to go through trials elsewhere before turning into bullpen stars and champions in San Francisco. 

“Every season, you learn from what happened the year before and you get better because of it,” Bochy said. “These guys will be better. We did ask them to do some things that aren’t easy to do, especially a young guy like a Law or Strickland. They’ll be better pitchers because of what happened this year and down the stretch and pitching in these games with such intensity. They have the weapons to do it. 

“I love Smitty. Okert, he stepped up for us. I think Osich is going to be better, so we do have a core of good young pitchers there. We’re going to have some growing pains but they’ll be better because of what happened.”

The Giants are counting on it. The offseason plan is not quantity. It’s quality, specifically in the ninth. There will be no more ambiguity. 

“As much as we can,” Evans said. “We’d like to know going into spring training who is going to pitch the ninth.”

Jeff Samardzija to miss start of season after MRI reveals strained pectoral muscle


Jeff Samardzija to miss start of season after MRI reveals strained pectoral muscle

SAN FRANCISCO -- The Giants nearly left Scottsdale unscathed. Instead they'll leave with an injured No. 3 starter, but the news on Jeff Samardzija late Thursday night was good news. 

Manager Bruce Bochy told reporters that Samardzija has a strained pectoral muscle that will sideline him for the start of the season. But given that Samardzija, who has had a rough spring, went for an MRI on his shoulder a week before the season opener, team officials have to be breathing a sigh of relief. 

"He'll go a week without throwing the ball and then crank it back up," Bochy told reporters, including Kerry Crowley of the San Jose Mercury News. "It should't take long to get him back on the mound so it's good news."

Samardzija was supposed to take the ball next Saturday at Dodger Stadium. Instead, the Giants will rely on two young pitchers and a non-roster invitee at the back end of their rotation. The injury ends a three-way race for the final two spots between Chris Stratton, Ty Blach and Derek Holland. The Giants could use all three in the rotation until Samardzija is healthy, or they could skip their No. 5 starter and move one of the pitchers into the bullpen. 

Because the Giants have two off days before their seventh game, Madison Bumgarner can line up to pitch three of the first nine games. The Giants have been considering that all spring, although they have yet to publicly announce a decision one way or the other. Bumgarner said early in camp that he would be up to the challenge, and given how sharp he was all spring, that might be the best way to tread water until Samardzija is cleared to return to the rotation.

No. 79? No. 53? Before they were stars, Giants wore random numbers


No. 79? No. 53? Before they were stars, Giants wore random numbers

SCOTTSDALE — A couple of veterans walked past a clubhouse TV earlier in camp and saw that the Giants and Padres were tied heading into the bottom of the 10th of an exhibition game. The Padres infielders were just standing around, and there was not yet a new pitcher on the mound. 

“It’s that time when No. 99 comes in to pitch,” one of the players joked as he headed home for the day.

A few seconds later, a big left-hander took the mound. He was, in fact, wearing No. 99, and in his inning on the mound he would face a No. 74 (Aramis Garcia) and No. 78 (Steven Duggar). This is the norm for spring training, when dozens of players — including teenagers and journeymen still hanging around the low minors — get into every game. That leads to action between numbers you would never see in a normal game. The Giants had 60 players in camp, plus 10 coaches and staff members with numbers. Throw in their 10 retired numbers and the unofficially retired ones (25, 55, etc.) and, well, there aren’t a whole lot of choices left. 

If Duggar makes the Opening Day roster, he’ll get an upgrade from his lineman’s number. Ditto for Garcia, who could be Buster Posey’s backup as soon as next season. Still, a taste of big league action doesn’t guarantee a normal number in camp, when young players regularly find themselves back at the end of the line. 

Ryder Jones wore 83 in camp last year and 63 in the big leagues. When he showed up this year, with 150 big league at-bats under his belt, he was told that he would have to wait until the end of the spring to upgrade. Players with more service time (think No. 2 Chase d’Arnaud or No. 19 Josh Rutledge) get priority, at least until all the cuts are made. Jones said he has a few numbers in mind for his next stint in the big leagues, but he won’t be picky. 

“Anything under 40 works,” he said, smiling. 

The steady climb toward single digits happens to just about everybody. Long before Brandon Crawford’s became @bcraw35, he wore 79 in his first camp. He moved up to 53 after that and Mike Murphy flipped that to 35 when Crawford became the big league shortstop. Hunter Pence doesn’t remember his first spring training number with the Astros, but he knows it was in the low eighties. Joe Panik wore 66 the first time he spent a spring at Scottsdale Stadium. “I was an offensive lineman,” he joked. Tyler Beede, now on the cusp of his big league debut, got promoted from 63 to 32 when he arrived last spring, only to swap to 38 this year because of some in-season shifting. When Pablo Sandoval arrived last summer, Steven Okert switched from 48 to 32.

Then there are those who have only known one jersey. Posey was a can’t-miss prospect when he arrived and doesn’t remember wearing anything other than 28. Brandon Belt was a top-25 prospect when he came to camp for the first time, and he’s been 9 since that day. Madison Bumgarner wore 40 in his first big league camp because he had already made his big league debut, but somewhere in the team archives, there are probably a few photos of a 19-year-old Bumgarner wearing something else. 

“The previous spring I came up to pitch a few times,” Bumgarner said. “I’m pretty sure I had a different number every time I came over and I’m pretty sure it was always in the eighties.”

There were seven Giants in the eighties this spring. Duggar was one of two top prospects — Chris Shaw inherited Crawford’s old 79 — to come close, and he didn’t mind one bit. He’s not thinking too far ahead, even though he could be a big leaguer in eight days. 

“I’ll take anything if I’m in the big leagues,” he said. “I’ll take No. 112 if that’s what they give me.”