April 15, 2024

Blake Snell’s Giants debut is coming, but who can they trust to relieve him?


LOS ANGELES — The San Francisco Giants finally have a date circled to introduce Blake Snell. The left-hander is scheduled to make his season debut Monday against the Washington Nationals on the shores of McCovey Cove.

It’s a softer landing than you might expect for the pitcher who won the National League Cy Young Award last season. The Giants would’ve loved to have Snell on the mound Wednesday at Dodger Stadium against an explosive lineup that he held to a .128 average in four starts last season for the San Diego Padres. Technically, they will. But his mound action in Los Angeles will happen several hours before the official first pitch. And the hitters in the box will be his new Giants teammates. Snell is scheduled to pitch simulated innings in what will be a final tuneup in his abbreviated spring.

When it comes to replicating spring training, pitching to kids at Shoreline Community College in Seattle only goes so far. (Snell has been working out at the school, where his father, Dave, is the longtime coach.)

“There’s a buildup you go through in spring training and we just feel we weren’t there yet,” Giants manager Bob Melvin said. “So we think he’ll feel a lot better. Also, throwing to some major league hitters (will help), too. It’s been pretty easy for him (in minor-league scrimmages), getting a lot of strikeouts to guys just throwing fastballs. So we’ll get some guys in there who can probably challenge him a little more. And then we’ll be ready to rock.”

It’s been rocky without him. Delaying Snell’s debut until next Monday will result in the Giants carrying an unusable player on the active roster for the first three series of the season — not an ideal situation for any club, especially one that has a crowded group of pitchers on the injured list (Alex Cobb, Tristan Beck, Sean Hjelle, Ethan Small, Robbie Ray).

But that’s the way it had to be. Snell signed for $62 million on March 19. If the Giants had signed him three weeks earlier, the price tag might have been over $100 million. No, it’s not your money and it’s not mine. You don’t start a chant in the stands for stuff like payroll savings and financial flexibility. But the Giants had to wait out the market for Snell’s contract terms to make fiscal sense. So they did, then they left it up to the baseball people to make baseball sense of the rest.

Right now, the Giants look like a team struggling to cover a pitching shortfall. Right-hander Keaton Winn pitched competitively in a difficult assignment Monday night, completing five innings in a series opener at Chavez Ravine. But the Giants lost 8-3 as a struggling bullpen let the Dodgers pull away in the sixth. Right-hander Tyler Rogers inherited two baserunners from left-handed rookie Erik Miller and it took two pitches to cash them in. Teoscar Hernández hammered a do-nothing slider for a three-run home run.


Keaton Winn pitches in the second inning at Dodger Stadium. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

There’s no cooking the books when you account for the Giants bullpen after five games: 18 innings, 20 earned runs, four home runs, 11 walks, 16 strikeouts. Every reliever except Landen Roupp has been scored upon. Shortstop Tyler Fitzgerald ranks third out of eight relievers in FIP, which probably shouldn’t be true even in the smallest of samples. When right-hander Nick Avila pitched the final two innings on Monday, he became the Giants’ fourth reliever in five days to make his major league debut.

It’s one thing to expect jitters from rookies in the big leagues for the first time, especially when Shohei Ohtani is in the batter’s box. But the Giants’ high-leverage relievers haven’t looked much better. Right-hander Luke Jackson hit the IL with back spasms after one appearance. Tyler Rogers, who allowed just one home run to right-handed hitters in 2022, already has given up two this season. Closer Camilo Doval’s lone appearance in San Diego was a qualified mess that included two pitch clock violations.

Catcher and free-agent signee Tom Murphy is still learning a new pitching staff. He was behind the plate for Doval’s appearance in San Diego. He also caught Monday night and called for Rogers’ rising slider, which might not be the ideal early-count pitch to throw to a power hitter like Hernández, who makes more outs on the ground than in the air.

“I threw him a first-pitch slider, and it kind of backed up on me. It wasn’t a very good one,” Rogers said. “I told myself to get this one to the outer half and … it was back-to-back not-good sliders.”

It’s been a difficult start for Rogers, who also allowed a homer to Manny Machado in San Diego.

“There’s years I’ve had tough starts before,” Rogers said. “Someone once told me you’ve got to trust the back of your baseball card and the numbers will be there. We’re all feeling it out, trying to get some clarity. So we’ll see.”

It always takes time at the start of the season for relievers to settle into roles. It might take the Giants the better part of a month. As Melvin pointed out when asked about the relative inexperience in the bullpen, it’ll benefit the entire staff when they incorporate Snell and, with any luck, Cobb shortly after that. A reassembled rotation would allow them to move Winn into a long relief role. And that’s an attractive thought after the 26-year-old topped out at 98 mph and used a true three-pitch mix to keep the Dodgers mostly off balance.

“I had to have thrown more sliders today than I did all of last season,” Winn said.

Close. He threw 20 (out of 89 pitches) Monday night. He threw 21 (out of 594 pitches) last season.

Winn spent the winter working out in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with fellow Hawkeye State native and Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller. Keller gave Winn the advice he needed to unlock his slider’s potential. Instead of trying to throw around the ball, Keller told Winn to keep his wrist fixed. It led to better and more repeatable movement. The pitch generated five whiffs out of 11 swings Monday. The pitch made his four-seamer and splitter less predictable, too.

Winn ended his outing in impressive fashion. He stayed out of the middle of the zone while winning an impressive, nine-pitch confrontation with Ohtani, who flied out to left field. Winn said he didn’t anticipate throwing so many pitches after a bout of elbow inflammation set him back for two weeks in the spring. But he said he felt good and appreciated Melvin’s confidence to let him finish the fifth inning.

Whether Winn becomes an asset in relief or not, it’s vital that the Giants begin to establish some reliable, late-inning choices. The Giants made spackle out of wet $100s to upgrade every area of the roster in the offseason — except the bullpen. The organization has a lot of confidence that their minor-league system will allow them to backfill an otherwise unimproved group as needed.

Except they’ve already had four pitchers make their debut. The bullpen has been a mess. And Snell’s return can only fix so much.

That’s the bargain you strike when you sign a pitcher whose career includes two Cy Young Awards and zero complete games.

(Top photo: Andy Kuno / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)





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