Our season preview series concludes this week with a look at some of the arms that could make up the San Jose Giants bullpen. The Giants possessed several standout relief pitchers in 2013, including lights-out closers Derek Law and Hunter Strickland along with Bryce Bandilla, Cody Hall and Josh Osich. Now looking ahead to this season, the bullpen should once again be a strength of the club as a new crop of talented relievers are likely headed to San Jose.
The 2013 Augusta GreenJackets (Class-A) featured a prospect-laden starting rotation and many, if not all, of those hurlers expected to open this season in San Jose. However, it wasn't just the starting staff that excelled in Augusta a year ago. An exciting group of relievers helped propel the GreenJackets to numerous close victories en route to the team posting the top regular season record in the South Atlantic League. Augusta's strength in 2013 could now be San Jose's strength this year.
Headlining the list of GreenJackets relievers expected to make the jump to the California League is right-handed closer Tyler Mizenko. Mizenko, a former 28th round draft pick, led the South Atlantic League with 25 saves last season. He owned an impressive 2.75 ERA over 48 relief appearances while striking out 50 batters in 52 1/3 innings. Armed with a heavy low-to-mid 90's sinker and power slider, Mizenko had the highest groundout-to-flyout ratio on the Augusta staff - a trait that should serve him well in the hitter-friendly California League.
In 27 games before the All-Star break last year, Mizenko boasted a remarkable 0.61 ERA yielding just two earned runs in 29 2/3 innings while going 15-for-16 in save opportunities. A rocky stretch in July, which reportedly could be attributed to fatigue and some bad luck inflated Mizenko's ERA somewhat, but he recovered in August to finish the year strong. Over the first two seasons of his professional career, Mizenko has collected 38 saves and owns a stellar 2.46 ERA.
Mizenko though wasn't the only one who enjoyed success in the late-innings out of GreenJackets bullpen last season. Right-hander Stephen Johnson, a former sixth round draft pick, was the most dominant arm among the Augusta relief corps down the stretch and almost certainly is ticketed for San Jose this spring. Over his final 15 appearances last year dating back to July, Johnson fired 19 scoreless innings with just six hits allowed and a whopping 28 strikeouts. He spent most of the year as a set-up man before sharing the closing duties with Mizenko late in the campaign.
Johnson features an electric mid 90's fastball and a plus-slider that helped him log 71 strikeouts in just 52 1/3 innings last season. He recovered from a difficult middle portion of the season to post an overall ERA of 3.61 while limiting the opposition to a .215 batting average and going 8-for-8 in save chances. Of note, Johnson did walk 30 batters (over five per nine innings on average), so improving his control will be a point of emphasis this year.
Fellow right-handed relievers Jorge Bucardo and Ian Gardeck were also key members of the Augusta bullpen last season and should be headed to San Jose. Bucardo has previous California League experience having pitched as a starter with the Giants late in 2010 before battling significant arm injuries the next two years. He returned as a reliever and opened last season in the San Jose bullpen, but quickly found himself on the DL after just five appearances. Once healthy again, Bucardo was sent to Augusta, where he pitched for the remainder of the season.
Bucardo gives the hitter a unique look with a low 3/4 arm slot resulting in significant movement on everything he throws. The veteran was spectacular in Augusta last season posting a 1.84 ERA in 27 games with six saves and a .197 opponents batting average. Bucardo thrived both in middle relief and in the late innings and that versatility should only help the Giants this season.
Meanwhile, Gardeck is another reliever with an overpowering mid 90's fastball. He averaged well over a strikeout per inning (66 K's in 56 IP) while logging a solid 3.21 ERA. Gardeck, like Johnson, can struggle with his control (almost 6 1/2 walks per nine innings last year), but when in the strike zone, he's awfully tough to hit. Gardeck, while working primarily as a sixth-to-eighth inning guy, had a 0.63 ERA in August last season and is poised for a promotion to the California League.
From the left side, the GreenJackets possessed two quality arms last year in Steven Okert and Mason McVay and both could be headed to San Jose this spring. Okert was the highest draft pick in the Augusta bullpen as the southpaw was selected in the fourth round two years ago out of Oklahoma. Using a low 90's fastball and excellent secondary stuff, Okert compiled a 2.97 ERA in 44 games last season. He struck out 59 batters in 60 2/3 innings and was especially tough on left-handed batters holding them to a paltry .189 average and just one extra-base hit for the entire season. Projecting ahead to this season, Okert could be lockdown left-handed specialist in the late innings for the Giants. He also has the ability to go multiple frames having pitched at least two innings on 15 occasions last year.
McVay led the South Atlantic League with 51 appearances last season, often pitching in longer relief. An imposing presence on the mound at 6'7" and 230 lbs., McVay fashioned a 4.12 ERA and recorded an excellent 75-to-18 strikeout to walk ratio over 67 innings.
The core of Augusta's bullpen last season was terrific and most, if not all, of those key arms should be headed to San Jose in 2014. The most successful Giants teams over the last decade have all featured outstanding bullpens and this year's edition has a chance to be right up there with some of the best.
Looking further, potential relievers from last summer's Salem-Keizer team that could skip over Augusta and jump to San Jose this season include Dan Slania, Tyler Rogers and Eduardo Encinosa. Slania was the first reliever taken by San Francisco in last year's draft when he was selected in the fifth round. The all-time saves leader at Notre Dame, Slania is a jumbo-sized right-hander at 6'5", 275 lbs. with a low-to-mid 90's fastball and two quality offspeed pitches. With only 13 2/3 innings of professional experience, Slania may just head to Augusta to start the year. However, a promotion to the California League could be in the cards giving San Jose yet another impressive late-inning reliever.
Rogers, a submarine-style right-hander would give the Giants bullpen a unique look if he ends up in San Jose. A 10th round pick last June, Rogers logged a 3.10 ERA out of the Salem-Keizer bullpen before joining the Giants for the playoffs (he pitched in just one postseason game with SJ last September). Encinosa, a seventh rounder two years ago out of Miami, throws hard and is tough to hit. Last summer in Salem, he notched a 3.12 ERA and limited the opposition to a meager .143 batting average. It remains to be seen whether Rogers and Encinosa, like Slania, merely move up one level or are tested with an aggressive promotion to San Jose.
Ray Black is another intriguing possibility as he prepares to make his professional debut. Black was selected in the seventh round way back in 2011, but shoulder surgery and a longer-than-expected recovery have resulted in Black having not yet pitched in a pro game. Finally healthy, Black possesses one of the best fastballs in the organization and is a candidate for either the San Jose or Augusta bullpen this spring.
Finally, it's not unreasonable to expect a pitcher or two to return from last year's Giants bullpen. Possible returnees could include right-hander Chris Marlowe (3.97 ERA), who thrived as a starter early in the year, but struggled in the second half in relief after a long stint on the DL. Jeff Soptic (6.26 ERA) has a mid-to-upper 90's fastball, but struggled with his control all year in San Jose. Jason Forjet (4.52 ERA) could also return after pitching as both a long reliever and as a starter in 2013. With so many arms still in minor league camp, several personnel decisions still need to be made and thus the Giants bullpen situation likely won't be solidified until just before the roster is announced in the coming days.