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Efficacy of Giants’ 2018 bullpen a serious question

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Milwaukee Brewers vs San Francisco Giants
San Francisco Giants pitcher Mark Melancon (41) throws a pitch in the eighth inning as the Milwaukee Brewers face the San Francisco Giants at AT&T Park in San Francisco, Calif., on Sunday, August 20, 2017.

When the Giants signed closer Mark Melancon to a four-year, $62 million contract after blowing a major league-leading 30 saves in 2016, it was supposed to solidify the bullpen.

Since the departure of fixtures Javier Lopez, Santiago Casilla and Sergio Romo the San Francisco bullpen has lacked lockdown-ability.

One year of inconsistency and injury later, the Giants enter 2018 with many questions similar to those of one year ago.

Perhaps Melancon blowing a save and allowing the Arizona Diamondbacks to walk off last season on Opening Day was an omen of things to come. The former all-star dealt with forearm and elbow issues all season and only appeared in 32 games in 2017, the fewest since his 2010 rookie campaign when he made 22 appearances between the Yankees and Astros.

Melancon had surgery in September to repair a strained pronator muscle in his right forearm. While the procedure requires two to three months of rehab, the offseason should have given Melancon more than enough time to come back healthy and effective as the anchor of the bullpen in 2018.

The Giants have a decent amount of internal depth for the back-end of the pen. Derek Law entered Spring Training last season with an eye on a set-up role, but a spike in his walk and home run rates earned him a demotion in June and he didn’t reappear until September when rosters expanded. Law’s top competition for an Opening Day roster spot is likely to be Reyes Moronta and Roberto Gomez, two guys with hard fastballs and sketchy control.

Moronta and Gomez were also September call-ups and the former had the better showing, racking up 11 strikeouts in 6-2/3 innings.

The wild card is right-hander Julian Fernandez, whom the Giants selected from the Colorado Rockies in December’s Rule 5 Draft. Fernandez’s fastball has been clocked as high as 103 mph but the 22-year-old hasn’t played above A-ball yet. The Giants must keep Fernandez on the 25-man roster, or offer him back to the Rockies. This means a roster spot our of spring is likely his to lose.

Returners Sam Dyson, Hunter Strickland and Cory Gearrin all figure to be important late-inning options for manager Bruce Bochy.

The Giants traded for Dyson after he recorded a 10.80 earned run average in 17 games for the Texas Rangers, who designated him for assignment. Dyson’s 4.03 ERA in 38 games after the deal isn’t going to win him any awards but he was worth about one win above replacement in 2015 and 2016. It’s not out of the question he could be again.

Strickland and Gearrin were easily the two most consistent relievers on the team last season, combining to allow just 33 runs in 129-1/3 innings — a 2.30 ERA. They could both do to cut down their walk rates — 4.3 and 4.6 per nine innings, respectively — but the two of them should fit well in the seventh inning.

The biggest bullpen question mark the Giants still have has to be, who will be the left-hander(s). The Giants haven’t really had a quality southpaw out of the bullpen since Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt retired. Steven Okert and Josh Osich both have majors-level stuff but their command is not optimal and neither have impressed enough to be a front-runner entering camp.

Will Smith was supposed to be the team’s new shut down lefty but has been out of action since March 2017 rehabbing from Tommy John Surgery. Smith is likely to be back by May but will almost certainly need to shake out some cobwebs after missing for more than a year.

Maybe that’s why the Giants are reportedly “in serious contract talks” with free agent lefty Tony Watson, according to USA Today’s Bob Nightengale. Watson, owner of a career 2.68 ERA over his seven-year career, would be a clear and immediate upgrade to the relief core but is likely to command a salary too high for the Giants to remain under the $197 million luxury tax threshold, an objective the organization has remained interested in for the duration of the offseason.

Outside of Melancon, the Giants haven’t done much in the last 18 months to address a bullpen that ranked in the league’s bottom third in 2016 and 2017. Dyson fell into the team’s lap, but Kyle Crick and George Kontos were two of the team’s more effective arms in 2017 and will now don Pirates jerseys. Bullpens are fickle, though, and the unit San Francisco has assembled looks adequate on paper.

Whether or not that comes to fruition is another question entirely.

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