Nobody ever seems to notice the bullpen until things go wrong. That’s been the case with the San Francisco Giants, whose three World Series championships since 2010 had as much to do with their strong ‘pen as they did with Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, or anyone else who grabbed more headlines.
But now, things are starting to go wrong. The Giants, expected to be contenders again this season after spending big to upgrade their rotation this winter, are a .500 team early on and their once-vaunted bullpen has started to show cracks.
It starts with the remnants of the “core four,” the group of relievers who were part of all three championships. Jeremy Affeldt retired so he gets a pass, but the other three have all had their own issues. Sergio Romo was having a nice start, but a strained flexor tendon in his right elbow has put him on the shelf for the foreseeable future. Left-handed hitters are hitting .500 so far against Javier Lopez, whose only job is to get left handers out. And closer Santiago Casilla already has blown two save chances to start the season.
It’s not just the old standbys that have been disappointing, either. Hunter Strickland has looked entirely hittable in the early going to the tune of a 5.06 ERA. He’s almost entirely reliant on velocity to get guys out, and the league may have caught up with him. George Kontos, the league leader in appearances and one of the team’s most reliable arms, has the same injury as Romo and could be out long term. His loss is a big blow to the Giants, as he’s become one of Bruce Bochy’s most trusted arms over the past few seasons.
The bullpen wasn’t supposed to be an issue this year, evidenced by the fact that the Giants made no moves to address it this offseason as they were throwing loads of money around. Relievers were one thing the Giants supposedly had in spades in their system, the deepest pool of prospects at any position in the organization. That depth has been tested much, much earlier than anyone anticipated; and so far, the results have been encouraging.
Cory Gearrin, the former Braves prospect who’s battled through arm injuries, has been untouchable early on. Josh Osich has seamlessly stepped into Affeldt’s old role and has shown ability to get both lefties and righties out. Derek Law has faced seven batters in his major league career and struck out five of them. And there are still a number of intriguing names in Triple-A Sacramento, a mix of the familiar kind like Ricky Romero, Vin Mazzaro, and Braulio Lara and newer names like Mike Broadway, Jake Dunning, Steven Okert, and Phil McCormick.
Most of those names could help the big league club in a pinch, and odds are more than a few of them will get the chance. The Giants are facing something they didn’t expect to face this season: a cosmetic remake of their bullpen due to both injuries and poor performances, while still fielding a team that expects to contend. It’s going to be a tough trick to pull off.
The bullpen has always been one thing the Giants could count on when their offense or rotation struggled, but now the situation has been turned on its head. A changing of the guard in the bullpen was inevitable, but the Giants certainly didn’t expect to deal with it this soon. Their depth is going to be severely tested, and it’s not hyperbole to say their playoff hopes will live and die with that test.