Will Smith

Why Giants might not name their closer before end of spring training

Why Giants might not name their closer before end of spring training

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The Giants finally will play a baseball game Saturday, getting Gabe Kapler one step closer to the day when he'll have to make quick decisions in the late innings of a close game. Kapler is replacing the man who did that better than anyone, and he'll be at an immediate disadvantage. 

Bruce Bochy had a Core Four for a while, but even in his final year he entered the season with Will Smith, Tony Watson, Sam Dyson, Reyes Moronta and Mark Melancon set as late-innings options. Watson still is here. After that, it's rookies, non-roster invitees and a collection of starters who may only be able to make this club as versatile relievers. 

The Giants plan to lean into that, and there's a chance the Opening Day bullpen primarily is made up of guys who can go three innings at a time. But you still need a closer, someone who will take the ball with a one-run lead in the ninth. You still need that one person that everyone else works to get the lead to.

Right?

Maybe not. 

"If somebody grabs hold of that position and makes it unequivocally clear that that person is the right player for that role, sure, I think there's some value in naming a closer," Kapler said. "If it doesn't work out that way, it's interesting -- flexibility works both ways. We have to be flexible enough to say right now we don't have to name somebody a closer. I think that decision will be made for us as we go through camp."

The Giants have one obvious candidate, Watson, who saved 30 games for the Pirates but has not done it in two seasons in San Francisco. Shaun Anderson got a taste late last year and has expressed an interest in closing, but the Giants are stretching the former top prospect out as a starter right now. Trevor Gott is making interesting adjustments this spring and was a closer in college and the minors, but he has just one big league save.

The Giants want Gott to be versatile enough to pitch at any time, too, and they could find that Anderson and Watson, or other incumbents, are best used in higher-leverage spots. For years, teams have talked about the fact that it doesn't really make sense for your best reliever to be kept on ice until the ninth. The Giants could be poised to actually go all-in on that method.  

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Regardless, team executives quietly are optimistic about the group. They believe they've put together a collection of good arms, and Andrew Bailey, Ethan Katz and Brian Bannister have received strong early reviews for the work they're doing in altering pitch mixes and grips. A young bullpen doesn't necessarily have to be a bad one. It also doesn't have to be one with a set hierarchy. 

"I think the game is changing dramatically and relievers know that there are fewer of those surefire 'you're the seventh, eighth and ninth (inning) guy' throughout baseball," Kapler said. "Those are actually more rare now than anything else. I do think players in general like to know their role and in a perfect world we can lay that out for them. We don't have relievers in our 'pen that are married to any role and I think that's fun and unique about our camp. We don't have one reliever that has to pitch in any particular role."

Giants have ample production to replace six weeks into MLB free agency

Giants have ample production to replace six weeks into MLB free agency

If you go to a team page on baseball-reference, you'll see pictures of the top 12 players for each season, sorted by Wins Above Replacement. It can be a fun trip down memory lane. 

Click on the 2015 Giants and you'll see Matt Duffy, Jake Peavy, Chris Heston and George Kontos mixed in among the longtime core Giants. Go back to the last title team and you'll see photos of Jean Machi, Angel Pagan and Gregor Blanco. Pull up the legendary 2010 team and the first two photos are of Aubrey Huff and Andres Torres. 

The 2019 team didn't provide nearly as much value as most recent Giants clubs, but if you pull up the page for last season, the first thing you notice might be a little scary. Sorted by WAR, seven of the 12 Giants listed won't be on the roster on opening day. 

Now, the 2019 Giants weren't good, so it's not like running it back was ever something that should have been under consideration. They went 77-85 last year but won so many one-run games that they actually had a better record than expected. Their Pythagorean record (based on runs scored and allowed) was just 71-91. 

But Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris have said they want to be competitive as deep into next season as possible. This isn't a race for the No. 1 draft pick, and there's a lot of production that needs to be replaced before the team reports to camp in February ... 

Madison Bumgarner

He agreed to a deal with the Diamondbacks over the weekend, and no matter how you feel about the situation, there's no denying that Bumgarner brought a lot to the Giants last year. He was worth 2.8 Wins Above Replacement and leaves 207 2/3 innings that need to be filled. 

Will Smith

One of the best relievers in the NL, he's now a Brave. Smith was worth 2.2 WAR and the Giants don't currently have an obvious choice for the ninth inning. 

Pablo Sandoval

He sneakily provided 1.5 WAR and hit 14 homers while balancing out Evan Longoria. There was no choice to be made with this one. Sandoval had Tommy John surgery and will miss most of the season, but that's still some production that will need to be made up. 

Kevin Pillar

Before Bumgarner departed, non-tendering Pillar stood as the most controversial roster decision of the offseason. There are valid baseball reasons for the move, but that's still 1.4 WAR and 21 homers that's headed elsewhere. You're not supposed to talk about RBI in 2019, but Pillar drove in 87 runs last year. That production will need to be replaced. 

Stephen Vogt

He'll now catch Bumgarner in Arizona, and the Giants will need to find another backup catcher. Vogt was a perfect complement to Buster Posey, and he actually outpaced him by some metrics. Baseball-reference had Vogt at 1.2 WAR and Posey at 0.9; FanGraphs has Posey at 1.8 and Vogt at 0.9. 

Reyes Moronta and Sam Dyson

The Giants traded Dyson in July, he had shoulder surgery, and there are very good off-field reasons beyond that to keep him out of a clubhouse. But he threw 51 strong innings in four months for the 2019 team and Moronta, who is out until July or August with his own shoulder surgery, threw 56 2/3. These guys made solid contributions to last year's win total and will need to be replaced. 

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Just from the free agents alone, that's over nine Wins Above Replacement no longer on the roster. You can argue that those players were likely to decline or not worth the investment, but there's no arguing how much raw production the Giants have to replace. 

There is some good news when you look at that leaderboard, though. Mike Yastrzemski (2.8 WAR) and Donovan Solano (1.6) ranked in the Giants' top six, and Zaidi has proven adept at finding those types of players in his career. The Giants will keep churning through the roster in hopes of building a sustainable winner. They'd better hope some of the players shine sooner than later because otherwise, it's going to be another very ugly number in the loss column.  

MLB free agency: How post-Will Smith bullpen market looks for Giants

MLB free agency: How post-Will Smith bullpen market looks for Giants

SAN FRANCISCO -- The best reliever on the market came very close to being a Giant in 2020. 

Will Smith told teams that he would sign the one-year qualifying offer and return to San Francisco if they did not come up with better offers, and he came pretty close to holding true to that statement. Ultimately the Atlanta Braves stepped in, giving Smith a three-year deal just before the deadline to accept the qualifying offer. 

That move left the Giants with a massive hole in the ninth inning, but the bullpen issues go beyond the closer role.

The Giants had one of the National League's best bullpens in the first half last season, but Sam Dyson, Mark Melancon and Drew Pomeranz were traded and Trevor Gott and Reyes Moronta got hurt. Of the six Giants who made at least 40 appearances out of the bullpen last year, only Gott and Tony Watson will be on the active roster on Opening Day. 

That leaves a lot of room for newcomers, and Farhan Zaidi has said he likes his young depth and believes in some of the rookies who got a chance late last season. Shaun Anderson, Sam Coonrod, Tyler Rogers and Jandel Gustave are among those who could be in the mix for high-leverage jobs. 
But you can expect the Giants to add plenty of experienced arms to the spring training mix, too.

Here's a look at the bullpen market now that Smith has left for his hometown:

The Top Tier 

Yeah, it's uhh ... not a good offseason to be looking for a closer. You can make a strong case that Drew Pomeranz -- who signed with the Giants in January as a starter -- is the best reliever left out there. Pomeranz showed flashes of brilliance when the Giants moved him to the 'pen and they turned that promise into Mauricio Dubon. In Milwaukee, Pomeranz made himself a lot of money, striking out 45 batters in 26 1/3 innings while sitting in the high 90s with his fastball. 

Will Harris, who had a 1.50 ERA last year for the Astros, is the top right-hander left on most boards. He has just 20 career saves but should pitch in the last couple innings for a contender next year. Daniel Hudson has had a rough few years but ended up as the postseason closer for the World Series champs, so he should be in for a nice raise. 

The Giants have a need, but they also shouldn't pay for high-end relief pitching given their current roster situation. 

The Former Giants

The Giants need good PR right now, and there are plenty of options if they want to go the #ForeverGiant route. 

Sergio Romo, Cory Gearrin and Dan Otero are all free agents, along with a few relievers who pitched for the Giants in 2019: Kyle Barraclough, Fernando Abad, Nick Vincent and Derek Holland. 

None of that moves the needle too much.

The Likely Answer

Zaidi wants flexibility in his bullpen, and he never spent much on free agent relievers in Los Angeles other than the Kenley Jansen contract. Want to know how the Giants will fill out their 2020 bullpen? Last year's model gives us a good starting point. 

The Giants traded cash considerations for Gott, a hard-throwing right-hander they believed could be pretty good in a different situation. You can bet they're looking for the next opportunity to scoop up a similar player. 

They gave a non-guaranteed deal to Vincent well after spring training had started, taking advantage of a market that has become cruel to veteran relievers. There will be plenty of options again as the offseason winds down.

There are a lot of familiar names out there -- Cody Allen, Carl Edwards Jr., Jeremy Jeffress, Hector Rondon, to name a few -- and a few veterans are going to be sitting around in early February looking for an opportunity. Zaidi should be able to add a few experienced arms to the spring mix and do so without spending much. 

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Finally, there's the method the team turned to late in the year. The Giants went young, and while the results were sometimes ugly, the front office does feel good about some of what was seen. Rogers was a revelation, Anderson showed a desire to pitch the ninth, and Coonrod had some big moments.

The Giants know they're in a situation where they can continue to give young guys a shot, with the hope that a year from now a few of them will look like foundational pieces for the 2021 bullpen.