Winter Report Card: Giants do well to address bullpen, but holes remain

Monday February 6th, 2017

Before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, we’re checking in to see how each team has fared thus far this off-season, acknowledging that there’s still time for that evaluation to change. Teams will be presented in reverse order of finish from 2016. Next up: the San Francisco Giants.

2016 Results

87–75 (.537), second place in National League West; lost Division Series to Cubs

Key Departures

IF Ehire Adrianza, OF Gregor Blanco, RHP Santiago Casilla, RHP Chris Heston, LHP Javier Lopez*, LF Angel Pagan, RHP Jake Peavy*, RHP Sergio Romo

Key Arrivals

3B Jae-gyun Hwang, C Nick Hundley, RHP Mark Melancon

​(*free agent, still unsigned)

Off-season In Review

In 2016, the Giants discovered that their even-year magic could only go so far, and their bullpen had a lot to do with it. After storming to an NL-best 57–33 record in the first half, the team went 30–42 in the second, limping home with the league's third-worst record—still good enough to claim a wild-card berth and, thanks to a Madison Bumgarner gem, make it into the Division Series against the Cubs. San Francisco was three outs away from forcing a deciding fifth game of the series when its bullpen, which had blown an MLB-high 32 saves during the regular season and lost nine games in which it led in the ninth inning, melted down one final time in a four-run ninth to hand the Cubs a 6–5 win.

Given that, the primary focus of the Giants’ off-season has been rebuilding a unit that manager Bruce Bochy lost so much trust in. Gone are mainstays Casilla (31-for-40 in save chances, 3.57 ERA in 58 innings) and Romo (4-for-4 in save chances, 2.64 ERA in 30 2/3 innings, not to mention time lost to a flexor tendon strain) to the Athletics and Dodgers, respectively. Still in limbo are lefty specialist Lopez (4.05 ERA in 68 appearances totaling a mere 26 2/3 innings) and veteran righthander Peavy (5.54 ERA in 21 starts and 10 relief appearances); both may have reached the end of the line after impressive careers that produced multiple championship rings, though neither has said so definitively.

Replacing Casilla and/or Romo in the closer role is the Giants' big winter expenditure, Melancon, who was signed to a four-year, $62 million deal that briefly set a contract record for relievers before being eclipsed by Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen. Melancon pitched very well for both the Pirates and Nationals in 2016, posting a stellar 1.64 ERA and 47 saves in 51 chances. That was no fluke, as he's averaged 72 innings with a 1.80 ERA and 2.25 FIP over the past four seasons, but the concern is that the 31-year-old righty's modest velocity (92–93 mph for his fastballs and cutter) and strikeout rate (8.2 per nine) leave him less margin for error than the higher-cost, harder-throwing alternatives. That's more of a long-term issue than a short-term one; for the moment, he's an upgrade, and one who didn't cost the Giants a draft pick. Deadline acquisition Will Smith will likely serve as the top lefty setup man, with Hunter Strickland and Derek Law in the top righty roles, though it wouldn't be a surprise to see the team add another arm.

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Beyond Melancon, general manager Bobby Evans has added two players of note. By far the more interesting one is Hwang, a 29-year-old South Korean third baseman who's spent the past 10 years in the KBO, the past seven with the Lotte Giants. In 2016, he hit .330/.391/.558 with 26 homers and 24 steals; those numbers represented an across-the-board improvement on his '15, the most notable facets of which are that he cut his strikeouts from 122 to 64 and ditched his epic bat flips, which is far less fun. The Giants signed him to a minor league deal worth just $1.5 million if he makes the roster and another $1.6 million in incentives. He could fit into a platoon with lefty Conor Gillaspie at third base and see time behind Brandon Crawford at shortstop as well, though he'll have to beat out Eduardo Nunez to do so.

The other noteworthy signing is Hundley, who was brought in on a one-year, $2 million deal to serve as Buster Posey's primary backup. The 33-year-old backstop spent 2016 with the Rockies, hitting .260/.320/.439 with 10 homers and an 88 OPS+ (four points below his career mark) in 83 games. With offense like that, you'd expect him to be a good defender, but such a notion isn't supported by the numbers; he's been 13 runs below average in Defensive Runs Saved over the past three years (excluding framing) and another 25 below average in framing, according to Baseball Prospectus' metrics. The workload behind Posey only amounts to about 40 starts, but it bears noting that his second-half fade (.282/.357/.383) suggests a bit more rest would be helpful.

Taking note of the departed, longtime fourth outfielder Blanco, who slumped to .224/.309/.311, signed with the Diamondbacks, and utilityman Adrianza (.254/.299/.381 in just 71 plate appearances) was lost on waivers to the Brewers (who have since designated him for assignment). Also gone is Heston, who no-hit the Mets on June 9, 2015 as part of a solid rookie season but was pushed back to Triple A by the arrivals of Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija; his 2016 with the Giants was nasty, brutish and short (four appearances, five innings, six runs, all in April). In December, he was traded to the Mariners for a player to be named later, probably not Felix Hernandez.

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Unfinished Business: Leftfield

Still looking for work is last year's regular leftfielder, Pagan, who hit .277/.331/.418 with 12 homers and 15 steals but was worth just 1.0 WAR for the year and a net of 1.4 WAR for his four-year, $40 million deal. As a group, the team's leftfielders (Pagan, Blanco, Jarrett Parker, Mac Williamson et al) hit just .261/.325/.395 and played slightly above-average defense. While the free-agent market offered numerous solutions at various price points—Yoenis Cespedes, Ian Desmond, Dexter Fowler, Carlos Gomez, Matt Joyce and so on—the team never made a serious pursuit of any of them. At the moment, it appears that the Giants are settling for some combination of their in-house options involving the lefty-swinging Parker (.236/.358/.394 with five homers in 151 plate appearances) and righties Williamson (.223/.315/.411 with six homers in 127 PA) and Gorkys Hernandez (.259/.298/.463 in 57 PA). That seems like a risk, particularly given that rightfielder Hunter Pence has played just 158 games over the past two seasons due to injuries.

The market has been picked clean of full-time solutions; dipping in now means sifting through options that may be more famous (Michael Bourn, Coco Crisp, Franklin Gutierrez) but not necessarily better. A trade would make sense, and particularly one with the Mets, who have a glut of corner outfielders besides Cespedes in Jay Bruce, Michael Conforto and Curtis Granderson (who's slated to play centerfield). Bruce and Granderson are both making real money ($13 million and $15 million, respectively); a willingness to absorb such a salary could preclude needing to give up a ton of talent, but if the Giants were willing to do so, they probably would have gone that route already. Other options could reveal themselves later in the spring; it would hardly be a surprise if the team made a move.

Preliminary Grade: C+

Melancon improves the bullpen significantly, and Hwang is a worthwhile gamble on improving the third base situation, but skimping at catcher and leftfield could carry significant ramifications if Pence and Posey can't remain productive and available.

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