LAS VEGAS–As teams around baseball embraced a radical new pitching strategy in 2018, Giants manager Bruce Bochy was quick to voice his skepticism.
Would Bochy consider using a reliever, or “opener,” to start a game and record just three outs before the Giants dipped into their bullpen? The longest-tenured manager in baseball didn’t exactly buy into the idea.
Under new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi, Bochy will be asked to adapt.
On the second day of Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings, Zaidi said the Giants would be open to embracing alternative pitching methods including the “opener” concept to navigate the rigors of a 162-game schedule.
“We have to think a little because of the uncertainty we have from a health standpoint,” Zaidi said. “We’re going to have to explore different forms of pitching staff construction and whether that’s using openers, whether that’s having tandem days where you have two pitchers each throwing three-to-four innings and taking down the majority of the game, I think we’re going to have to develop a plan for the pitching staff that fits the personnel that we have.”
The Tampa Bay Rays and Oakland A’s set new trends last season by piecing together pitching staffs and having players move back and forth from the rotation to the bullpen. The Rays regularly employed former Giants reliever Sergio Romo as their starting pitcher, but Tampa Bay manager Kevin Cash would remove Romo after one inning of work.
Teams that incorporated openers often followed with a “bulk guy,” who would throw multiple innings as the strategy allows teams to create more favorable matchups early in games.
The A’s used the opener strategy with right-hander Liam Hendricks against the New York Yankees in the American League Wildcard game and the Milwaukee Brewers wound up enjoying success with the new approach throughout their postseason run.
Because the Giants have several young starters including Andrew Suárez and Dereck Rodríguez who may benefit from innings limits and veterans like Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija rehabbing from injury, Zaidi said he expects the franchise to work creatively to develop ways to deploy its full staff.
“If we don’t have five guys that we can expect 34 starts and 200 innings from –and very few teams have that– then thinking about some of these alternatives as a way to get through 27 outs every day I think is going to be a topic of discussion with us,” Zaidi said.
Zaidi said acquiring outfielders was a higher priority than adding to the Giants’ rotation or the bullpen at this point in the offseason and even acknowledged the possibility that San Francisco may not sign or trade for additional pitchers before next season. Though the Giants have shown interest in free agent Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi and are willing to sign certain players to one-year contracts, Zaidi may not add significant depth to the current staff.
The new front office leader said he would consider it a sign of organizational strength if pitchers like Suárez or Rodríguez began the year in the minor leagues and had the luxury to build up stamina over the season.
“We’ve talked about with some of the younger guys, if they start in the pen as a way to control their innings going forward,” Zaidi said. “Or if they start in Triple-A as a way to create rotation depth, those are not bad things for us over the course of 162 games. They certainly showed the capability to start in the big leagues on the Opening Day roster, but I would view it as a sign of organizational health if we have to make some tough decisions.”
Though Bochy has a reputation as one of the sport’s more traditional managers, Zaidi said his initial conversations with the manager regarding pitching strategies have been open and positive.
“From a front office perspective and a manager perspective, everybody wants the seven-inning starter,” Zaidi said. “But at the end of the day, everybody would take a win using less conventional methods rather than lose trying to over-extend a starter who isn’t equipped or best fit to make that 110-plus pitch outing.”
Even after non-tendering right-hander Hunter Strickland, Zaidi considers the bullpen a team strength and said many other clubs have checked in on the availability of Giants relievers via trade this offseason.
Left-handers Will Smith and Tony Watson and right-hander Sam Dyson are viewed throughout the industry as potential trade candidates, but Zaidi said the Giants have also fielded a number of calls regarding the younger pitchers on the team’s staff.
“It’s obviously going to have to make sense for us,” Zaidi said regarding trade possibilities. “We’re going to have to feel good about the return to trade one of those guys.”