The Giants expected to play a baseball game Thursday. Instead, hours before a winner-take-all Division Series game in Chicago would have started, their management sat in the Nick Peters Media Interview Room at AT&T Park, unpacking a season that ended Tuesday night when the Giants could not hold a three-run lead in the ninth inning against the Chicago Cubs.
“We threw everything at them,” said manager Bruce Bochy, who used five relief pitchers in the ninth inning of a 6-5 loss in Game 4. “We had our best guys out there.”
What the Giants did not have was a trusted, designated closer to whom they could hand the ball and ask to record three outs. And addressing that absence will be a top priority this offseason for a Giants team that reached the postseason for the fourth time in seven seasons in 2016 despite leading the majors in blown saves.
General manager Bobby Evans said the Giants will “explore every opportunity to make sure that no ninth inning goes unstaffed” in 2017.
“I think the bullpen performs at a much higher level when you know who your ninth-inning guy is,” Evans said. “So we’ve got to do everything we can to make sure we’re clear on who’s finishing our games.”
The two pitchers the Giants used most often in the ninth this season, Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo, will become free agents. Returning relievers have little experience closing in the major leagues.
Their solution may lie in a trade – or a free-agent market that includes big names Aroldis Chapman, Mark Melancon and Kenley Jansen. They will command hefty contracts. But the Giants showed a willingness to open the checkbook last winter, signing starting pitchers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija to big free-agent deals, adding Denard Span and inking Brandon Crawford and Brandon Belt (in April) to sizeable extensions.
“We have every commitment for 2017 to return to a championship-caliber club,” Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said Thursday. “Resources will be expended as necessary to get us there.”
Several closers were made available at this year’s trade deadline, but the Giants could not land Chapman (who went to Chicago), Melancon (Nationals) or Andrew Miller (Indians), any of whom could have helped address their biggest weakness. Executive vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean said the Giants inquired about bullpen help in July but were unwilling to part with what it would’ve taken to acquire a big name.
“I know the effort was there; I know the conversations were deep,” Sabean said. “But you have to have a willing partner that thinks you’re a good fit. In every case, a closer didn’t come to the Giants; they went elsewhere for probably a lot more than we could have been involved in.”
The closer role aside, Evans said the Giants will not “overhaul” their bullpen this winter. Casilla, Romo and Javier Lopez – all parts of three World Series teams – are headed for free agency. But the Giants also received big contributions this season from young relief pitchers like Derek Law, Hunter Strickland, Josh Osich and Steven Okert, all of whom remain under team control next season.
The Giants’ arbitration-eligible relievers include George Kontos, Cory Gearrin and Will Smith, and the team probably will tender contracts to all three. Kontos has been one of the Giants’ most reliable relievers the past two seasons, Gearrin handled eighth-inning duties for much of this year, and the Giants thought enough of Smith to send former first-round pick Phil Bickford to Milwaukee for him at the trade deadline.
“I think we’ll find ways to improve our bullpen, but I think we’ve got a good core there for years to come,” Evans said. “An ‘overhaul’ would be a tremendous overstatement.”
Could that group contain a future closer? The Giants experimented with Strickland in the ninth this season and have high hopes for Law, who recorded a 2.13 ERA as a rookie. But none offers the proven closing experience of a potential outside acquisition.
“We have a bullpen full of guys that can pitch the seventh and eighth innings,” Evans said. “You can’t dismiss their potential. Yet we’d like to know as much as we can going into spring training who’s going to be pitching the ninth.”
While the ninth inning was a problem all season – the Giants lost a franchise-record 10 games when taking a lead into the ninth, including Game 4 – the bullpen overall did not have the same kind of stability as in previous seasons under Bochy.
With their primary setup man Romo on the disabled list for most of the first half, Bochy played matchups in the later innings to a much greater degree and varying success. Often he brought in relievers to face one or two hitters – the Giants led the majors in relief appearances of fewer than three outs – and roles in the bullpen were not clearly defined.
“We did ask them to do some things that aren’t easy to do, especially young guys like a Law or Strickland,” Bochy said. “And they will be better pitchers because of what happened this year and what happened down the stretch, pitching in these games with such intensity.
“But they have the weapons to do it. We do have a core of good young pitchers here. And you’re going to have some growing pains with these guys. But they’ll be better next year.”