SAN FRANCISCO -- It’s rare that relievers make such an impact that they become household names regionally and earn a group nickname, but the so-called Core Four got to that point while helping the Giants win three titles in five years.
Those parades wouldn’t have been possible without Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo, but as the Giants aim for another even-year title and success further down the road, changes are coming. Affeldt announced his retirement during the final week of the regular season and the other three are aging and not signed past 2016. Lopez is 38, Casilla is 35 and Romo is 32, and at some point even the most resilient arms run out of bullets.
The good news for the Giants? Reinforcements are on the way. In fact, some future bullpen standouts have already arrived.
Josh Osich had a 2.20 ERA as a rookie and has been anointed the next Affeldt. Hunter Strickland had a 2.45 ERA in his first full season and could be the future closer. George Kontos had the best season of his career (2.33 ERA in 73 appearances) and is under club control for four more seasons. The staff likes Cory Gearrin as a righty specialist and Sacramento’s Steven Okert has a big arm from the left side. Cody Hall showed flashes in a September cameo and is hopeful that an offseason of rest (he played in the Venezuelan League last winter) will help him find the 99 mph fastball he once had, and hard-throwing righty Derek Law is back to full health. Speaking of velo: Ray Black touches 103 (seriously) and Mike Broadway averaged 95 mph in his big league appearances.
In Part I of this weeklong series, we looked at a position group that’s anchored by one man. Part II focused on a young infield set in place for years to come. Part III was about an outfield that may be overhauled, and Part IV summed up a rotation that should undergo changes this offseason.
The bullpen is kind of a different animal. The Giants are set for the present with the veterans who remain, and they should be set in future seasons with all those young arms. The 2016 bullpen will be a blend of old and young, and with so many good arms — from the savvy veterans to the rocket-throwing rookies — it should again be a very strong group.
What Went Right: At times in 2015 it seemed like the bullpen was a problem, but that’s mostly because it’s easy to place blame on relievers after the occasional meltdown. In reality, the Giants finished third in the National League with a 3.33 bullpen ERA and they went 75-6 when leading after seven innings … Casilla set career-highs with 38 saves and 9.6 strikeouts-per-nine … Kontos had a career year in just about every respect and stranded the first 26 runners he inherited … Lopez finished third in the NL with 77 appearances and had a 1.60 ERA. Lefties batted .112 off him with just three extra-base hits … Osich had a 1.68 ERA across three levels … In 147 match-ups against right-handers, Romo gave up just 25 hits and struck out 64 … Strickland allowed just 12.9 percent of inherited runners to score, the lowest percentage among MLB relievers … Every single oft-used reliever but Casilla got a plate appearance. Because it’s been a while, TEXT YOUR FRIENDS!
What Went Wrong: Affeldt didn’t go out the way he wanted, posting a 5.86 ERA in his 14th and final season … Broadway had a 0.93 ERA in Triple-A but it was 5.19 in the Majors … Casilla was second in the NL with six blown saves … Yusmeiro Petit allowed 10 homers. No NL reliever gave up more … Lefties hit .371 against Romo.
On the 40-man roster: The Giants currently have 13 relievers on the 40-man roster. The ones you haven’t seen in the majors: Black, Law and Joan Gregorio.
Contract Talk: Casilla will make $6.5 million after finishing enough games to have his option vest. Lopez gets $5 million in the final year of a three-year deal and Romo gets $8 million in the second year of his backloaded deal. Petit and Kontos are arbitration-eligible, with MLB Trade Rumors projecting them to make $2.4 million and $1 million, respectively.
Minor Standout: Law was supposed to be the first of the prospects to get a taste of the big leagues and he nearly made the team before the 2014 season. Tommy John set him back, but he returned to Double-A Richmond this year and made 28 appearances. The 25-year-old had a 4.56 ERA and 1.52 WHIP, but that’s to be expected from a pitcher knocking the rust off. The peripherals were encouraging: 32 strikeouts and eight walks in 25 2/3 innings, and just one homer allowed. Remember, this is the guy who struck out 45 and walked one in 25 2/3 innings with the San Jose Giants in 2013. He’ll come to camp further removed from reconstructive surgery, and with a chance to try and pitch his way back into the bullpen mix.
Offseason Outlook: It didn’t get much play at the time, but it should be noted that Bruce Bochy mentioned adding a reliever when management addressed the media after the season. Bochy likes his kids — particularly Osich — but he’d surely be thrilled with another veteran coming in to help replace Affeldt. There’s not much on the market, but the Giants could get involved if they have some wiggle room. They also could decide they have enough depth, and then include a young flamethrower in a trade for a starter or outfielder.
The more likely offseason scenario is that the big story becomes: What do the Giants do with the long relief spot. Petit has had it on lock, but we just saw Bobby Evans part with his left fielder to get an extra $4.8 million of flexibility, so it’s not a given that Petit is brought back. If the Giants do sign two starters, Chris Heston could be a a good fit as the long man, and he’d be making the minimum.
Then, of course, there is Tim Lincecum. Could he return as this year’s Ryan Vogelsong, the veteran who bounces back and forth between rotation and bullpen? That will be the biggest question of January, and it may be the biggest offseason story for a bullpen that’s just about set.