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.”