Our season preview series concludes this week with a look at some of the arms that could fill out the San Jose Giants bullpen. The Giants have traditionally possessed one of the strongest pitching staffs in the California League and 2013 will likely be no different. The strength of the staff should be a prospect-laden starting rotation, but a number of exciting young pitchers, both returnees and newcomers, are candidates to fill roles out of the bullpen.
With so many arms still in camp, it's difficult to project the San Jose bullpen with complete accuracy. Looking at last year's relief corps, top late-inning hurlers Jose Valdez (2.83 ERA, 7 SV) and Josh Osich (3.62 ERA), two pitchers who received non-roster invitations to big league camp this spring, will certainly earn promotions to Double-A Richmond. Side-arming lefty Phil McCormick (3.48 ERA) set a San Jose Giants single-season record with 61 appearances in 2012 and figures to likely also make the jump to the Eastern League.
Drew Bowlin (3.97 ERA), Edward Concepcion (6.10 ERA), Stephen Harrold (5.19 ERA) and Shawn Sanford (5.15 ERA) all spent most, if not all, of last season with the Giants with mixed results. Bowlin had a pair of stints on the disabled list last year and has had difficult staying healthy throughout his career, but came on strong late in the season and features a mid 90's fastball. Concepcion, a big league non-roster invitee, has an electric two-pitch mix with a mid-to-upper 90's heater complemented with a huge curve ball. He limited the opposition to a .218 batting average last year, averaged over a strikeout per inning and was at his best late in the season. Concepcion though often struggled to throw strikes (37 walks in 48 2/3 innings) and owned a near-9 ERA in the first half. Harrold struggled with his consistency all year, but does feature what Baseball America called the "Best Slider" in the Giants farm system entering 2012. Finally, Sanford excelled as a starter in Augusta (A) two seasons ago, but ultimately lost his job in the San Jose rotation last year. He did seem to gain comfort pitching as a set-up man down the stretch and rarely beats himself with poor control. Minor league bullpens are often a numbers game and if there's room for any of these hurlers in Richmond and they show enough during spring training games, some could receive that promotion. If not, a return to San Jose could be in the cards.
Cody Hall is another relief pitcher who spent time with the Giants last season, but he almost certainly will return to the California League. A South Atlantic League All-Star with the GreenJackets last year, Hall owned a stellar 1.60 ERA and 22 saves in an Augusta uniform before an early-August promotion to San Jose. He wasn't quite as dominant with the Giants (3.24 ERA and one save in nine appearances), but still made huge strides and put himself on the prospect map with his overall performance in 2012. Hall has a major league body and arm with a fastball that sits in the mid 90's. He's still learning how to pitch, but with a hard mid-to-upper 80's slider and developing change-up, Hall has a chance to move quickly through the system. Given his lack of experience in the California League, look for Hall to return to San Jose where he would be a logical candidate to close games.
Right-hander Derek Law and left-hander Steven Neff are two relievers who spent all of last season in the Augusta bullpen and should earn promotions to San Jose this season. Law, a former ninth round draft pick, was a solid performer in the middle innings and as a set-up man. Over 55 2/3 innings, Law compiled a 2.91 ERA, struck out 67 batters and limited the opposition to a .216 batting average. Meanwhile, Neff logged 75 2/3 innings out of the GreenJackets 'pen last year, mainly as a long reliever. The southpaw possessed a 3.81 ERA and struck out 86. Both Law and Neff feature fastballs in the upper 80's to low 90's range and could fill similar roles in the San Jose bullpen this season.
Bryce Bandilla and Chris Marlowe are two other arms who pitched for Augusta last season that probably are headed to San Jose. Bandilla (fourth round) and Marlowe (fifth round) were high draft picks out of the college ranks in 2011 and have been used as both starters and relievers as professionals. While it's likely that both will spend time with the Giants in 2013, it remains to be seen if either (or both) will actually be used out of the bullpen.
Bandilla, a left-hander with a low-to-mid 90's fastball, spent time on the disabled list last year with an elbow injury and made just 11 appearances (nine starts) overall. When healthy, he was tough to hit with a 3.05 ERA and 48 strikeouts in 44 1/3 innings. The University of Arizona product is a prototypical power pitcher from the left side with intriguing potential, but did struggle at times to throw strikes consistently in 2012.
Marlowe has what Baseball America considers the "Best Curve Ball" of any pitcher currently in the Giants farm system. He began last season in the Augusta rotation with varying levels of success before moving to the bullpen in early-July. Overall, the right-hander logged a 4.20 ERA and struck out 86 batters in 83 2/3 innings, but like Bandilla, would often struggle with his control. Marlowe, with a fastball that tops out at 94 MPH combined with his plus-curve unquestionably has strikeout stuff and loads of potential. He should also be in San Jose this season and it'll be interesting to see if the organization gives him another shot as a starter or considers him a reliever going forward.
Jeff Soptic will be making his debut in the San Francisco organization this year and his landing spot could be San Jose. Soptic was acquired via trade from the Chicago White Sox last February in the Conor Gillaspie deal. A former third round draft pick out of a junior college, Soptic is another pitcher with a great arm as his fastball will register anywhere in the mid-to-upper 90's. He's even been known to reach triple-digits with the pitch.
Soptic pitched for Kannapolis of the Class-A South Atlantic League in 2012, but had an up-and-down season. The right-hander owned a 5.40 ERA and walked 29 batters in just 43 1/3 innings. The league did hit only .176 against Soptic, including a microscopic .143 mark versus right-handed batters. He's obviously an incredibly raw relief pitcher, but is a guy who could light up the radar gun with the Giants this year.
Finally, there is often a reliever or two that makes the jump from Salem-Keizer (Short-Season) to San Jose at the start of a new season. Possible candidates to make that leap this year include left-hander Steven Okert and right-handers Tyler Mizenko and Ian Gardeck. Okert was a fourth round draft pick last year out of Oklahoma and excelled in a set-up role with the Volcanoes after signing his contract. In 26 2/3 innings, Okert fanned 22, logged a 2.36 ERA and limited left-handed batters to a paltry .143 average. Okert is an extreme groundball pitcher with a low 90's fastball and if the organization feels he's ready to make the jump, he could be a top left-handed arm in the late-innings for the Giants this season.
Mizenko, a 2011 draftee, led the Northwest League with 13 saves last year to go with a 1.09 ERA. A control pitcher with a high 80's-to-low 90's fastball, Mizenko also records groundouts at a very high rate. Gardeck was a 16th round pick last season and while his 4.20 ERA doesn't indicate the same level of domination as his two bullpen-mates, he did record a whopping 45 strikeouts in just 30 innings. Gardeck's .196 opponents batting average was also one of the lowest on the staff and while he struggled with his control (24 walks), he possesses a fastball that can run up to 95-96 MPH.
If any relievers do make the jump past Augusta and straight to the California League at the start of the season, these three arms seem like the top candidates.
The reality is that there aren't enough spots in the San Jose bullpen for all of these pitchers. Some of the 2012 faces could be headed to Richmond while others may return. With their past starting experience, might Bandilla and/or Marlowe crack the Giants rotation this year? There are even some others not mentioned in this article that could work themselves into the discussion. With final personnel decisions in spring training on the horizon, the Giants bullpen situation likely won't be solidified until just before the roster is announced in the coming days.
2013 San Jose Giants Season Preview Articles