Pitchers & Catchers Report! Spring Training Starts! Now, About that Bullpen…

San Francisco Giants LogoHip, hip, hooray! Spring Training 2017 officially started today for the San Francisco Giants, with pitchers and catchers reporting to Scottsdale and slated for their first workouts tomorrow.

Spring Training games begin Feb. 24 for the G-Men.

Okay, enough celebrating already! What’s up with the bullpen this year?

Unarguably the Giants’ main Achilles’ Heel last season, the bullpen is going to have a pretty new look this time around. Two veterans — Sergio (Don’t-Ask-Him-To-Close) Romo and Santiago (Who Me?) Casilla —  have moved on to greener (or at least other) pastures and a third regular from 2016, Javier Lopez, has retired. He’ll be given a trial as a broadcaster in the KNBR booth for several games, filling in for Mike Krukow, who’s apparently having some health challenges. (Read more here.)

Manager Bruce Bochy likes to keep 12 pitchers on the roster and the starting five is pretty well set, so the focus now turns to the relief corps. It appears that Bochy is likely to stay with four of his most regular relievers from last season – George Kontos, Derek Law, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland. Plus there’s the exciting new addition, Mark Melancon. Here’s my first take on who to keep an eye on as good prospects to make the remainder of the 25-man roster (with a tip of the hat to Michael Saltzman over at Fansided for his good first pass at the entire crew in camp).

(As you read this piece, you’ll see that I rely heavily on two stats to evaluate pitching talent: WHIP (walks + hits per inning pitched) and FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). That second one may be new to you. It’s a relatively new development in Sabermetrics (the scientific/mathematics of baseball in which I am renewing my knowledge and passion this season). It is designed to measure the effectiveness of a pitcher without the influence of defensive brilliance or ugliness. The league average for FIP last year, e.g., was 3.8, so anything less than that is good and anything above 4.7 is terrible. If you want to know more about FIP, all the gory details are at my favorite Sabermetrics site.)

Mark Melancon, New Closer

Of course, the big bullpen news of the off-season was the successful recruitment of Mark Melancon (pronounced muh-LAN-son), a 31-year-old, 10-year veteran major leaguer with a proven track record as a closer. He features a well-above-average cutter and a nasty curve and he has great stats for keeping the ball on the ground and therefore avoiding big innings. The Giants paid this guy an apparent record for a reliever contract: $62 million over four years. There’s a 40-60 probability that this will be a good long-term deal. The guy is over 30 and his velocity can only decline as his arm ages. But his career averages of 2.79 FIP and 1.04 FIP combined with a respectable 6-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio make him a decent bet. He’d better be better than good, though, or the Giants’ fans are going to take him to task for taking so much of their money. (Yeah, it’s our money, Mr. Baer!)

One of the most likely to make the roster in my view is Cory Gearrin. Not only are his pitching stats respectable, the guy doubles as a left-fielder! There was a point last year when Bochy brought in a pitcher to take over for Gearrin, sent him to left field, let the new pitcher (Lopez) come in to get one guy out (he walked the dude), and then moved Gearrin back to the mound. (See the video here.) For a guy with a strategic mind like Bochy, Gearrin’s going to be difficult to release. Last year, he succeeded in 19 of 23 save attempts and had a very strong WHIP of 1.16, a career best, and a FIP of 3.29, well under the league average.

Steven Okert  was on the roster last season for the Giants, making 16 appearances, over the course of which he compiled an average 3.16 FIP and a similarly average WHIP of 1.29. Okert started his career in 2007 and had a sterling start but was plagued by injuries early on. Still, he looked decent during the G-Men’s final run in 2016 and probably has banked a certain amount of cred with Bochy as a result.

A guy I like a good bit but who is on the cusp because of off-season knee surgery is Josh Osich. He had an amazing 2015 season but injuries kept him from being at his full potential last season. He had a better-than-average WHIP of 1.376, but his FIP was abysmal at 6.09. I suspect he’ll make the 25-man roster cut but he’ll have one foot out the door until Bochy gets a decent look at how his surgery worked.

Before he was injured while a Cubbie in 2014, Neil Ramirez had a pretty good career going. And statistically, he looks to have recovered nicely from that injury. So I’m making him one of my long shots to make the final roster. Over his eight-year career in the majors (with three teams until last year when he was traded twice), he’s built a respectable FIP of 4.21 and a solid WHIP of 1.27. I just have a gut feeling about this guy; I like his attitude and I think that under the masterful tutelage of the best pitching coach in baseball, Dave Righetti, he could well flourish.

Matt Reynolds will likely make the cut even though he’s not quite even an average MLB pitcher. Last season with the Giants, he had a whopping FIP of 4.65 and an equally horrible WHIP of 2.00. So why do I think he makes the cut? Two reasons: first, the field is pretty thin (yeah, not great news), and Reynolds’ record with the Rockies and the Diamondbacks was a good bit better than he showed the Giants in 2016. So they may see hope for the future. Plus, he has good knowledge of NL West hitters.

A possible dark horse to make the cut is Kraig Sitton. You’ve likely never heard of him; he’s been in the minors now for six seasons and, at 28, he’s probably getting nearly his last shot at the Show. But for the Mariners’ AAA club last year, he did a good job, racking up a 1.14 WHIP and an FIP of 3.58, both of which put him in the above-average category.

So if we assume that George Kontos, Derek Law, Mark Melancon, Will Smith and Hunter Strickland all have cinched jobs, and if Boch goes with a 12-man pitching roster this year, this list is my tentative prediction for who makes the final 25-man roster. Interestingly, this gives the team an exact 50-50 split of lefties vs righties. I’m not sure that’s good in MLB today but that’s how it works out here.

Of course, as Spring Training develops, I’ll be keeping a really close eye on these guys and reporting back my revised thinking as real life intrudes on the fantasy of statistical projection.

I hope you like my stat-oriented stories this year. I’m back!

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