For many seasons, the San Francisco bullpen has been a source of pleasure for Giants fans. Unfortunately, the 2013 season revealed some cracks in the foundation. Bullpens are fickle beasts and can be easily brought back from the precipice, but there are some warning signs that dark days may be ahead. Perhaps that’s why our team depth charts project a combined -0.4 WAR from the unit.
Despite the gloomy prognosis from Steamer, a player-by-player analysis of the pen reveals some reason for optimism too. Like I said, bullpens are fickle beasts. This particular bullpen is split between the established old guard and an uppity younger generation.
Romo has been a source of delight for fantasy owners since 2010, when his elite rate stats made up for his lack of saves. Once he took over as closer in 2012, he became an instant fantasy hit. However, Romo is entering his age 31 season and his profile carries considerable risk.
First, there is the general decline in performance we have witnessed over the past two seasons. His strikeout rate has declined from a crazy 40 percent in 2011 to a merely great 23 percent last season. Similarly, his walk rate has increased from an elite 2.9 percent to a merely great 4.8 percent. Over that same period his fastball velocity declined from 89 to 87 mph.
The below average fastball isn’t why he is risky. The fastball is less important to Romo than other closers because he throws his slider between 40 and 60 percent of the time. Our own Jeff Zimmerman has found that pitchers who lean heavily on a slider carry an increased injury risk. Romo has had periods of limited availability in past seasons, but no major injuries, so he’s avoided the injury bug thus far. But the risks from sliders and age remain.
This is where the picture gets murkier for the Giants. For the four years since joining the Giants, Casilla has outpitched mediocre peripherals. He had no such luck in his time with Oakland, so perhaps he’s learned some repeatable skill with the Giants. He consistently projects for an ERA around 4.00 thanks to a tepid strikeout rate and high walk rate. He does generate a lot of ground balls and depresses BABIP, but the overall profile is worrisome. He’s ostensibly next in line for saves in San Francisco, but his profile should not comfort fantasy owners. Without a high strikeout rate, I see no reason to roster him unless Romo struggles.
Lopez is an interesting LOOGY. Owners in holds leagues should like him since he dominates left-handers, but he’s very much fixed in his role. Last season, he faced 98 lefties against just 63 righties. That’s the most carefully managed platoon split that I have observed.
With respect to these five pitchers, at least two will probably not make the major league roster. If healthy, Affeldt is the club’s second lefty. He’s probably safe for now. Last season was his worst since 2006, so he may be on thin ice. His job would definitely be in peril if he weren’t a lefty.
That leaves two spots to be shared between Machi, Hembree, Kontos, and Cordier. Machi is a feel good story. He finally broke into the majors in 2012 during his age 30 season. Last season, he contributed numbers that are good enough to join the setup reliever discussion. Machi may even be a better candidate for the eighth inning than Casilla, but his late development will probably force him to be opportunistic.
Hembree could be the long term play as the next Giants closer, and it’s possible that he’ll put up very strong rate stats. Last season, he featured a 27 percent strikeout rate and 6.8 percent walk rate as the closer with the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate. He’s a fastball-slider reliever who can generate enough whiffs to be useful in holds leagues. Keep an eye on his stock – a fast start could have him in the eighth inning role before long.
With respect to Kontos and Cordier, these two have the longest odds of making the roster. They will probably need help from factors outside of their control. Kontos profiles as a common middle reliever, but the Giants seem to have higher caliber guys in front of him. Cordier was signed to a major league contract despite never appearing in the majors. Last season was his first as a full time reliever, and he showed a big strikeout rate and too many walks. There is upside in his arm, but it’s hard to see where he fits on the roster unless he bumps one of the aging veterans or the long man below.
Barring injury to another starter, one of these guys won’t have a rotation job. The club will probably want starter depth at the major league level, which is why I expect one of the two to remain with the club. Both pitchers have some marginal usefulness as starters in certain leagues and formats.
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