Giants

Free agency preview: Giants hit reliever market at right time

Free agency preview: Giants hit reliever market at right time

SAN FRANCISCO -- Once again, the offseason has lined up perfectly for the Giants. The organization needed starting pitching last winter, and the market presented one of the best classes in years. The Giants came close on Zack Greinke, made calls on other big names, and ultimately came away with Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.

This offseason presents a similar opportunity.

The Giants were always going to need additional relief pitching after the 2016 season, with the three remaining members of the "Core Four" due for free agency. But the urgency increased during an ugly second half, and the final inning of the brief postseason run sealed the deal: The Giants need a closer, and this might be the best closer market the game has ever seen. 

Before we get to the options, it’s worth remembering what general manager Bobby Evans said a couple of days after the season ended. This will not be an “overhaul.” The pieces are in place for the bullpen to once again be a strength, but …

“We’ve got to do everything we can to make sure we’re clear on who is finishing our games,” Evans said. 

If they can do that, the Giants should have a group more than capable of backing what should be the deepest rotation in the National League. 

INCUMBENTS

RHP Cory Gearrin
RHP George Kontos
RHP Derek Law
LHP Steven Okert
LHP Josh Osich
LHP Will Smith
RHP Hunter Strickland
RHP Albert Suarez

THOUGHTS: The Giants opened the 2016 season with eight relievers, so the addition of one this offseason would pretty much set the group when you look at the players listed above. Smith came over at the deadline and didn’t allow a run after August 18. He should be the Jeremy Affeldt-type going forward. Law (2.13 ERA, 0.96 WHIP as a rookie) has Future Closer written all over him, and if he can stay healthy, he could be the go-to guy in the eighth. Strickland (.207 opponents average in three seasons) is still viewed as a guy who can pitch the ninth down the line, and he’ll team with Law in the late innings.

Okert might have pitched his way onto the 2017 roster with a strong September. Osich pitched his way out of the mix and had minor knee surgery after the season, but the Giants believe his 2015 run (2.20 ERA) is more indicative of who he is. 

Kontos quietly has a 2.48 ERA over the past three seasons, which tucks him right between Craig Kimbrel and Cody Allen on the leaderboard. You can make the argument he’s not used enough. Either way, he’s locked in as Bruce Bochy’s fireman in the middle innings.

Gearrin has held righties to a .615 OPS in his career and could be the new Sergio Romo in Bochy’s matchup-heavy plan.

Finally, there’s the long reliever spot. We’ll list Suarez here, but the Giants will need to find a spot for Matt Cain if he loses out to Ty Blach in spring training, and others like Chris Heston, Chris Stratton and Clayton Blackburn could get into this mix. 

BIG TICKET ITEMS: 

Aroldis Chapman, Kenley Jansen, Mark Melancon.

You know the names by now. Chapman, a 28-year-old lefty, is the hardest thrower in MLB history. He had 36 saves for the Yankees and Cubs and struck out 90 in 58 innings. He does come with baggage, however; he was suspended 30 games last season because of a domestic violence incident, and if the Giants become a finalist for his services, team executives will have a more detailed conversation about the off-field history. 

Jansen, 29, is a hulking right-hander with a 2.20 career ERA and 189 saves for the Dodgers. He has a simple, cutter-heavy approach, and he showed in October that he’s durable enough to pitch two or three innings when needed. Prying him away would be a monumental swing in the NL West. 

Melancon is a 31-year-old righty the Giants nearly grabbed from the Pirates at the trade deadline. Remember that three-year ERA list above? Melancon, Kontos’ former Yankees teammate, is near the top of every category during that timeframe. He has a 1.93 ERA in 225 appearances over the past three seasons, saving an MLB-leading 131 games in 141 chances.

Evans already has touched base with the representatives for all three, but the bidding could get away from the Giants over the coming weeks. Chapman and Jansen are expected to approach $100 million and both could reasonably ask for five-year deals. With the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs and Nationals among the teams seeking closers, both guys will get what they ask for. The Yankees are thought to be the favorites for Chapman and it'll be hard to outbid the Dodgers for Jansen, who was given a qualifying offer and would cost his new team a draft pick. Evans surprised the baseball world by scooping Cueto up last December, but right now that world sees Melancon as his best bet.

BEST OF THE REST:

The Giants watched Greg Holland’s showcase earlier this month, and if he’s all the way back from Tommy John surgery, he could be in the same class as the Big Three. They have seen plenty of Daniel Hudson over the years, and he’s an intriguing upside play. He has the stuff to be a closer once a team gets him away from Chase Field, but he doesn’t have the track record. Koji Uehara has the track record (93 big league saves) and the Giants have checked in on him, but he turns 42 next April so he would simply be a stopgap.

Brad Ziegler closed the Giants out three times last year while with the Diamondbacks and posted a 2.25 ERA in 69 appearances, most of them in hitter-friendly Chase Field and Fenway Park. He’s not the sexy pick, but his ability to keep the ball on the ground would certainly fit well in front of Gold Glove winners Brandon Crawford and Joe Panik.

Finally, you have a bunch of veterans who have done it before. Jonathan Papelbon. Fernando Rodney. Joaquin Benoit. Drew Storen. Etc. It’s hard to see how any of these options are better than turning the ninth over to Law or Strickland. 

TRADE OPTIONS: 

Remember that Royals team that took the Giants to the very end in 2014? Holland was the closer for a lockdown bullpen, but two other right-handers could also be available this offseason. The Giants asked about Wade Davis (1.18 ERA the past three seasons; that is not a typo) in July but a forearm strain ended that conversation. He returned to the mound in September, and the best move for the Royals could be to deal a dominant closer who is under contract for just one more year. Herrera saved 12 games when Davis went down, and if the Royals ever make him available, he has the stuff (10.8 K/9 last season) to step right in as a closer. 

The Royals will need to sell at some point, as just about all the key pieces from that 2015 title team are coming up on free agency. The White Sox should be selling now, and if they do, David Robertson (37 saves, 3.47 ERA, 1.36 WHIP) might be a nice short-term fit. He has two years and $25 million left on his deal and he shouldn’t cost much in terms of prospects. Some American League talent evaluators believe he would benefit greatly from a roomier ballpark and better defense. 

GIANTS FREE AGENTS 

No look at the reliever market would be complete without remembering what the Giants had. Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Romo are free agents, but the Giants haven’t had serious discussions with any of them. Casilla will be a sneaky-good addition somewhere, but his time in San Francisco ended bitterly. Both sides need a fresh start. With Smith, Okert and Osich already on the 40-man roster, it’s hard to see where Lopez fits. He’s said to have a very short list of teams that could keep him out of retirement. 

Romo has had his ups and downs in recent years. He lost the ninth-inning job, battled injuries, and didn’t always see eye-to-eye with Bochy (twice in 2016 he laughed as he was pulled from a game). But he continues to dominate in short bursts thanks to his slider and what Cueto would call “coconuts,” and if he can’t find a bigger role elsewhere, a January or February reunion could make sense.

Nine observations from Giants' .500 homestand vs. Padres, Rangers

Nine observations from Giants' .500 homestand vs. Padres, Rangers

Gabe Kapler went out of his way over the last week to stand by Hunter Pence. He was asked about the struggling veteran -- who started the year 0-for-23 -- every day, and he always was positive. During one Zoom session with reporters, Kapler answered a question about another Giant and then pivoted to talk about Pence's work in the cage. 

"I have 100 percent confidence that Hunter Pence's track record is predictive of what's to come for him," Kapler said. 

The reason the Giants were so confident is quality of contact, which has become an overriding theme for the new hitting coaches. If you square three balls up and they're all hit right at guys ... I mean, there's nothing else you can do. That's what Donnie Ecker, Justin Viele and Dustin Lind preach, and Pence's metrics showed he wasn't completely out of whack. 

Pence actually is fourth on the team with an average exit velocity of 89 mph, right between early MVP candidates Donovan Solano (89.4) and Mike Yastrzemski (88.6). His launch angle is pretty similar to Solano's, too, and he's second to Brandon Crawford in percentage of batted balls (44) hit 95+ mph. 

By expected batting average -- which is based on contact -- Pence is at .215, which isn't great, but certainly isn't anywhere near the .038 average he carries right now. There's a reason the Giants are sticking with him, and he rewarded that faith a bit with a 403-foot triple, a walk, and a run Sunday. 

"It hasn't been that tough to stay positive for me, personally," Pence said. "I think there's a lot of positives because the team is playing well, and so it's been kind of easy."

The Giants went 3-3 on the homestand, showing a habit of coming back late in games, but also that their starting pitching is kind of a problem. Here are eight more takeaways from the first homestand of the year ... 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

--- Look, this won't fully last for Solano and Yastrzemski, who are BABIP gods right now. No reason not to enjoy it, though. Solano finished the first full week of the season as the MLB leader in batting average (.484) and NL leader in RBI (13). Yastrzemski is tied for the league lead with 10 runs and leads the majors with 11 walks. Both of them have a .500 OBP. Yastrzemski feels like an easy choice for NL Player of the Week. 

--- This Rockies series is a homecoming for Rico Garcia, the young right-hander who has been an early surprise out of the bullpen. Garcia made two appearances for the Rockies last year, allowing seven runs in six innings. They had taken him in the 30th round of the draft in 2016. The Giants signed Garcia as a minor league free agent and hoped that his stuff would play better out of the pen. Well ... it definitely has. 

Garcia averaged 90 mph in those two appearances last year but is at 94 in five scoreless relief outings this year, and he was bumping 97-98 on Saturday night. The command has been a little iffy, but it wasn't a huge issue for Garcia in the minors. Perhaps there's an explanation for that, too. 

"In watching Rico pitch (Saturday) I said to myself, I hope Rico is really happy with the 97 and doesn't try to get more, because I think when a pitcher gets to that level of really improving that velocity it can be encouraging and you try to throw it a little bit harder and you give up some of your command as a result," Kapler said. 

--- It was an impressive homestand from Evan Longoria, who didn't get to face live pitching for a couple of weeks as he rehabbed an oblique strain. Longoria was 6-for-14 in four games with two doubles and a long homer. His homer Sunday left the bat at 108.8 mph and traveled 416 feet. So much for rust. 

--- Tyler Heineman has done a nice job at the plate and seems to be a pretty good pitch-framer, but there have been some defensive issues. He was part of a botched rundown Saturday night and had two catcher's interference calls in his first week as the starting catcher. Kapler went into depth about what's going on.

"Early in the Dodgers series we noticed that he was considerably behind the plate, and for that reason we lost a couple of strikes, especially on big-breaking ball guys, 12-6 breaking ball guys," he said. "With (those pitchers) we want him to move up behind the plate, get closer to the plate, so he can stay with the curveball and get up underneath it and get it called for a strike. 

"We've asked him to make that adjustment, not so much on east-west guys, slider guys whose ball moves more horizontally, but definitely on that 12-6 curveball. So he's just getting used to that and sometimes that development comes with hiccups and that's why that's happening."

Heineman didn't have any issues in his last couple of appearances. 

--- Tyler Anderson had a really strong relief performance against the Padres and then gave up a three-run homer to Joey Gallo on Sunday. He's a candidate to start against his former teammates this week in Denver with Drew Smyly now on the injured list. Anderson threw just two innings Sunday. 

Losing Smyly is going to hurt. He was Kapler's best starter so far, and there's no way to survive this road trip if Logan Webb and Kevin Gausman don't show more efficiency and Samardzija keeps lacking swing-and-miss stuff. 

[RELATED: MLB power rankings: Where Giants, A's sit after 11 days]

--- Anderson had the weirdest stat of the homestand. He picked off two Padres in one inning, becoming the first Giants pitcher to pull that off since Madison Bumgarner in the first inning against the Reds on June 27, 2014. 

--- Six different Giants hit a homer during the six-game homestand, and Yastrzemski hit two. They weren't cheapies, either. It might be too early to say that it's much more of a hitter's park, but there's no doubt the ball is flying if you pull it down the right field line.

Full credit to the great Mike Krukow. He was all over that in the first exhibition game, pointing out that right field had a new jetstream because the archways have been closed off. I don't know how the science behind this works, but it's clear he was right. 

--- The quote of the year thus far comes from, not surprisingly, Samardzija. He was asked about players having "a beer" together after games but doing so while adhering to social distancing rules. He repeated the words "a beer" and shook his head.

"Plural," he said. "Go with plural."

How Giants are developing players in Sacramento with no minor leagues

How Giants are developing players in Sacramento with no minor leagues

Kyle Haines has been dealt nearly an impossible hand. The Giants' director of player development has to advance the game of top prospects like Joey Bart, Marco Luciano, Patrick Bailey and Heliot Ramos, while also making sure more veteran players like Yolmer Sanchez, Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Triggs are ready to join the big league club in San Francisco. 

This all is happening at the same alternate site in Sacramento, Sutter Health Park, with the minor league season canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. 

Haines is leading the operation with a long list of others helping him as well. The goal is to make this as much of a game-like environment as possible. The reality is, that's not very easy or realistic. There simply aren't enough players, especially pitchers, to form two teams for a full intrasquad game. 

"The best way to describe it, I think, is a glorified workout," Haines said last week in a phone interview with NBC Sports Bay Area.

To make the day-to-day feel as much like a game as possible, the staff simply forms a defense and a certain pitcher will throw to two, three or four batters. There's no traditional lineup. What the Giants will do is create impromptu situations like a real game for the hitter, pitcher and defense. 

What Haines has learned early on is the numbers game isn't the biggest obstacle. 

"Honestly, the big thing is just trying to keep morale up," Haines said. "It’s not an ideal environment on and off the field to play baseball. It’s not ideal and we’re trying our best. Everyone’s done great so far."

The Giants are doing their best to keep a loose, focused environment on the field. Off it, they want their players and staff to be as safe as possible in Sacramento. Players like Bart and Luciano are tested just as often as Mike Yastrzemski and Brandon Crawford. Perhaps just as important, the team has kept players as close to the park as possible, with as little travel as possible outside of that as well. 

If players already live locally in the area, they will continue to do so. But what about those who don't? The franchise took care of housing near the stadium and has made it clear how important safety measures are. 

In essence, they have a bit of their own bubble in Sacramento. 

"Basically our only interaction is together pretty much all day," Haines said. "I know there’s a lot of people thinking we’re being reckless. Personally, I feel as safe with this group of people and the amount of testing that Major League Baseball is doing -- I feel that these kids and myself are much safer here than being at home going into the grocery store and living their normal lives.

"I don't think we’re at any more risk. We’re definitely being extremely careful."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

When players do go through simulated innings and mini scrimmages, there's no way for you or me to see their stats. There's no Baseball-Reference for these "games." That doesn't mean the Giants aren't tracking stats, though. 

They're tracking everything, and sharing everything with their players. Whether it be exit velocity for a hitter or the velocity on a pitcher's fastball, they want their players, veteran or prospect, to know what they're tracking and evaluating. That creates some pride for players, and certainly helps the game environment. 

Ultimately, though, Haines doesn't want his players to get caught up in the numbers. What should be more important right now is the process. 

"Honestly, we want to make sure we could turn this into a good situation where they’re not worried about their stats going online," Haines said. "They’re just worried about the process. That’s one way we want these guys to look at it. We want you to make progress in your own development, not in the eyes of Baseball-Reference.

"Let’s be real, stats can be very misleading."

While top prospects like Bart and Luciano are advancing their games in Sacramento right now, that isn't true for a large number of players. Haines tries to call players who aren't at the alternate site as much as he can, but has relied heavily on his staff for that. This is hard enough with a large staff. If it were a one-man show, Haines would be glued to his phone calling 200-plus minor leaguers all the time.

Instead, a staff member will check in with about 10 or 15 guys throughout the week and report back to people like Haines. He praised the Giants' medical staff, strength and conditioning staff, hitting and pitching coaches and minor league managers for their collaboration.

There also is a large number of players who don't have the benefit of using the same technology or facilities as what is being utilized in Sacramento. The Giants did send equipment to a group of prospects, and Haines said a lot workout at training facilities that are able to give them the kind of data the Giants are tracking. But that's not true for everyone.

"For the most part, these poor kids, I just feel for them," Haines said. "They're basically just in the offseason again."

There's strategy and reason behind everything the Giants are doing. That's also true for who they chose to come to Sacramento. When looking at that list, it's full of top position player prospects like Bart, Luciano, Bailey and Ramos, as well as Alexander Canario, Luis Toribio and Will Wilson.

There are a few key names missing from that list, though. 

Pitching prospects like Seth Corry and Sean Hjelle aren't in Sacramento right now, but dont get it twisted: The Giants still have high hopes for these two, along with their other pitching prospects. This isn't about picking favorites. 

The simple fact is, pitchers have the benefit of developing through bullpens, tracking their velocity and spin rate with systems like Rapsodo. Haines recently talked with Hjelle and said the 6-foot-11 right-hander is game-ready right now. The same can't be true for a young hitter without live at-bats.

[RELATED: Giants prospects Bailey, Bart learning to play first in Sac]

"The key right now is these young position players can’t miss a year worth of at-bats, whereas pitchers we can simulate innings much easier than we can simulate at-bats," Haines said. "That's definitely part of the thought process."

It's not perfect. It's not ideal. The Giants are balancing the present and the future all at one field, at the same time. They have to be focused and keep it loose, with safety as the top priority. 

There's a lot to juggle right now for Haines and his staff, and they certainly seem up to the tall task to push the Giants' exciting young farm system.