SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In a little less than a month, the Giants might have to part with two right-handers they really like. That’s what happens when your bullpen has such a strong foundation that less experienced pitchers can’t find a way to break through. In theory, it’s a good problem to have.
“They say that -- until you’ve got to make those decisions,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “We’ve got some time for that.”
The Giants have about a month to figure out what to do with this puzzle: Jean Machi, George Kontos and Erik Cordier have all proven their value at points, and all are out of minor league options, so they can't just be reassigned to Triple-A Sacramento. There likely is just one bullpen spot available.
Machi, the incumbent, has looked as sharp as any pitcher in camp, giving up two hits and striking out four over four scoreless innings this spring. Machi lost 15 pounds over the offseason and skipped winter ball so he could stay fresh after posting a 2.58 ERA in 71 appearances last season. Machi has been pitching every other day, and so have George Kontos and Erik Cordier, both of whom threw Sunday in what was otherwise a forgettable game for the Giants. It's been a seesaw through the first week, each pitcher making his case every time he takes the mound.
Cordier, owner of a 100 mph fastball, struck out two in a scoreless inning Sunday. Kontos continued his strong spring, pitching a scoreless frame; A 29-year-old with 120 appearances the last three seasons, Kontos has three strikeouts and one homer allowed in three spring innings. He was a standout during live BP sessions.
“George is throwing the ball well, real well,” Bochy said. “George is doing what you’re supposed to do and that’s try to pitch your way onto the club.”
Kontos has two rings with the Giants and a 3.36 ERA in three seasons, but he’s repeatedly seen the business side of the sport, getting moved back and forth between San Francisco and Triple-A. He’s well aware of what’s at stake this spring.
“I know what’s going on — it is what it is,” he said. “Everything is out of my control, but my goal is to be pitching in this uniform when Opening Day comes around.”
Kontos had a 2.08 ERA in Fresno last season and a 2.78 mark in the big leagues. He struck out 11 batters per nine innings in Triple-A and has shown a familiar one-two punch this spring: A fastball that’s up a couple of ticks and a swing-and-miss slider. Kontos started throwing in early December and added swimming to his already strenuous routine as he prepared for camp.
“When there’s this much at stake, you push a little more,” he said. “I feel great. I refined my delivery a bit and I’m throwing down in the zone.”
Cordier has far less experience than the other two out-of-options right-handers, but as one Giants coach said last week, it’s hard to stomach losing a guy with a fastball like Cordier’s. He struck out two Sunday and has four strikeouts in three scoreless spring innings. Cordier made only seven appearances for the Giants last year, all in September, but that was enough to give him a confidence boost coming into camp.
“The thing I took away from it the most was it validated that I’m more than capable of pitching in the big leagues,” he said. “It’s not a guess, it’s not ‘I think I can do it.’ It was confirmation that all the hard work is worth it.”
Cordier finally made his big league debut last September after a decade in the minors. He’s out of options because the Braves put him on the 40-man roster in 2011, and since Cordier was designated for assignment the next year, he can opt for free agency if he doesn’t make the Giants roster and then clears waivers. The focus right now, though, is simply on putting the best foot forward.
“I’ve been in this position my whole career, fighting for what I can get,” he said. “It’s what I’m used to. I’m not going to put any added pressure on myself, because that’s not going to help me.”
Cordier said he’s pleased with how the ball is coming out of his hand right now, and like the other relievers fighting for a spot, he has noticed how fierce the competition is. With Santiago Casilla, Sergio Romo, Jeremy Affeldt, Javier Lopez, Ryan Vogelsong and Yusmeiro Petit seemingly locked into the bullpen, there’s little wiggle room for others.
“I’ve never been around something like this before where you have one spot for this many guys throwing well,” Cordier said. “It’s unique. This team is so stacked with good guys who are established. You’re not going to turn over a team that just won a World Series.”
It’s going to be a difficult decision, but for an organization that has won three titles in large part because of strong bullpens, this truly is a good problem to have.
“I’ve never been in a situation where competition is bad for anybody,” Cordier said.