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Giants challenge Moronta to earn next season's closer role

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The 2020 MLB season had stops and starts, two separate spring trainings, a long hiatus, and ultimately just 60 games. Throughout that time, Giants manager Gabe Kapler did roughly 200 sessions with reporters, first in person and then on Zoom. 

At no point during that time did Kapler ever publicly name one of his relievers his closer, but he said last week that wasn't by design. 

"It's quite the opposite," Kapler said on the Giants' YouTube show. "We're waiting for somebody to step up and take the reins." 

The Giants used Trevor Gott early, but while he got most of the opportunities before a rough weekend against the A's, he was never named the closer. Tyler Rogers ended up with three saves and Sam Coonrod had a brief flirtation with the ninth. Tony Watson picked up two saves and was a fixture in the late innings, and Sam Selman got the first save of his career. Had the final game played out differently, even Kevin Gausman might have picked up a save. 

Four of the five players who had a save in Kapler's first year will be back -- Watson is a free agent -- but it's someone the manager never called upon who might be the most obvious pick right now. Reyes Moronta has the most traditional "closer" profile in the current bullpen: An upper-90s fastball, good slider, and proven ability to miss bats. Like many top closers, Moronta even fights the occasional bout of wildness. 

 

But the Giants never used Moronta last season, even as their bullpen showed a clear need for one more right-handed arm. He spent most of the year rehabbing from shoulder surgery, and while he was said to be showing good velocity at the alternate site in Sacramento, Moronta was not included on the taxi squad that came down to San Francisco for the final few days of the season. 

That was a bit of a mystery, but it's clear Moronta is now back in the mix. Kapler and pitching coach Andrew Bailey recently connected with the 27-year-old via Zoom for what Kapler called a "really important heart-to-heart."

"We challenged him to come to camp in his peak physical condition, we challenged him to come to camp dedicating himself to potentially being an important late-inning, high-leverage reliever for us," Kapler said. "He's going to have opportunities to take control of a role like that.

"We'll see what he looks like in spring training, and if he steps up to the plate and emerges as that guy we're going to be really excited about it."

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It's not hard to read between the lines there. 

The Giants, as currently built, need Moronta to grab the role, because there are not a lot of obvious candidates. They went into the offseason hoping to multiple right-handers with experience to the bullpen, but they're not going to be shopping in the expensive aisle. Their first addition, Matt Wisler, is a versatile pitcher but he has just two saves in the big leagues. Future additions this offseason likely will have similar resumes. 

When Kapler took over it seemed this is what he would prefer. He talked last spring about how the Giants could play the matchups, but over his first 60 games, it was clear he didn't mind having a reliable arm for the ninth. He hoped that would be Gott, but a change was made halfway through the season. Over the final week it became increasingly clear that the Giants needed more stability late in games, especially when Coonrod blew a crucial one against the Padres.

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Kapler has said multiple times since the season ended that he's hoping someone takes control of the ninth next season, but it's going to be up to the players to do so with their performance. He brought up examples of teams he had been on where that happened, and others he had watched where a committee worked best. 

"I don't think -- my personal opinion -- that the 2020 Giants had somebody step up and say 'I am going to be the closer.' So we had several pitchers pitch the ninth inning and the eighth inning and the seventh inning and we gave them all a chance to step up," Kapler said. "Now that's not to say going forward that we won't have an opportunity to name a closer and to say that every time we have a lead in the ninth inning we're going to hand the ball to this one pitcher."