Giants can own July by cornering reliever market

July 13th, 2019

The Giants are in last place in the National League West, as they were in 2017 and only narrowly avoided being in 2018. Despite a recent hot stretch, San Francisco has won the fewest games since the 2016 All-Star game of any NL team not named the Marlins. It's why the club hired Farhan Zaidi from the Dodgers last winter to overhaul baseball operations, and it's part of why long-time manager Bruce Bochy is retiring after the season. Change is in the offing. Lots of it.

Now, you're probably thinking this is about Madison Bumgarner, and if -- more likely, when and where -- the Giants will trade him. Even if the 2019 version of him isn't quite the same as the one who made historic October memories in 2010, '12, and '14, he's the name everyone will be watching.

Bumgarner isn't the only reason San Francisco is going to be interesting to watch over the remaining days of July. Every contender in baseball needs a reliever, perhaps even two or three. The Giants have at least five good ones. They're definitely trading at least one. What if, in addition to Bumgarner, they traded them all?

What if Zaidi looked around at a pitching market that has far more demand than supply and said: "Six good pitchers here, we're open for business."

What if?


Back in March, I made the case that San Francisco would have one of the most intriguing bullpens in baseball. It was full of fascinating stories featuring pitchers you probably didn't realize had been good last year, veterans on the comeback trail, youngsters attempting to use data to improve, Rule 5 Draft picks, ambidextrous throwers, and so on.

"[The bullpen] might" I wrote, "be 'fine,' and if it's better than that, it might just lead to its own decimation via trades, either before Opening Day or at the Trade Deadline -- which would be a good thing."

That could happen, because the bullpen has been better than "fine," in important ways. Giants relievers have combined for the sixth-lowest bullpen ERA (3.90), and are tied for the third-lowest bullpen OPS (.685), in part thanks to the third-highest ground ball rate (46%). Those are nice numbers, but what you really want out of a bullpen is the ability to hold tight in the biggest spots.

By one method of measuring clutch performance -- FanGraphs' aptly-named "Clutch" score -- the San Francisco bullpen ranks first. By another -- the save replacement "Shutdowns," which uses win probability as a basis in order to put closers and non-closers on the same scale -- the Giants' bullpen is again the best. In high leverage situations, S.F. relievers are first in 2019 and fifth on record, dating back to 2002.

Even if that's not guaranteed to last the rest of the season, you get the point. It was easy to see before the season how good this group could be, and it's easy to see how good it's been. It's also easy to see how far away from contention the Giants are, with the weakest hitting outfield in baseball, a bottom-seven infield, and a bottom-eight rotation that soon may have to fill a Bumgarner-sized hole.

And, perhaps most importantly, it's easy to see that the supply for relievers might be slim this year. That's partially because a crowded NL playoff picture may not lend itself to selling -- even the last-place Reds are fewer than six games out of first in the NL Central -- and partially because some of the further-out teams don't have much to offer.

This gives Zaidi an opportunity. He'll see that top arms like Ken Giles and Felipe Vázquez will either not be available or will require large returns. He'll see that teams could be wary of closers with lots of saves and low ERAs but questionable peripherals to back them up, like Shane Greene or Álex Colomé. He'll see that names like Jake Diekman, Mychal Givens, and Craig Stammen might not generate that much excitement.

Meanwhile, Zaidi can offer five quality relievers with various price points and performance levels, and all providing use. (You'll also find on the chart below, because he's been better than you probably think, though his lack of track record and rough recent run -- a 9.72 ERA over the last month -- makes him an unlikely trade target.)

Here's what Zaidi can offer.

Will Smith (30, free agent after 2019). Smith is an impending free agent and, by advanced Statcast quality-of-contact numbers, he's been a top 10 reliever both in 2019 and in 2018. If you like saves, he's got 23 of them. If you like low ERA, his is 1.98. Smith has 53 strikeouts and only 8 walks in 36 1/3 innings. His 39.9% strikeout rate this season is the fifth-best of 325 pitchers with 30 innings or more.

(31, one year of arbitration remaining in 2020). Dyson was, for a brief moment, a seemingly-elite closer for Texas, riding his grounder-heavy approach to 38 saves and a 2.43 ERA in 2016. It all fell apart in 2017 -- he had a combined 6.09 ERA between the Rangers and Giants -- but he's been quietly effective over the last two years for San Francisco. Only three relievers in 2018-19 have a higher ground-ball rate (minimum 100 innings) than his 59.9%; only 11 relievers have a lower ERA than his 2.54. This year, only five relievers -- including a teammate we'll get to -- have a lower walk rate than his 3.7%.

(34, $14 million due in 2020). You can look past Melancon's unimpressive 4.17 ERA, because other teams will, too. A three-time All-Star closer for Pittsburgh, Melancon signed one of the largest free-agent reliever deals in history prior to 2017. His first two years as a Giant were hindered by injuries, but that hasn't been an issue in 2019. While Melancon's walk rate is higher than it was in his prime, he's managed to avoid the most damaging contact better than almost anyone. Of 250 pitchers who have faced a minimum of 100 batters, only one has allowed a lower barrel rate than Melancon's 1.8% (a barrel is a Statcast term for the perfect combination of exit velocity and launch angle. It's what you don't want to allow if you're a pitcher).

Zaidi would probably have to pay down some of Melancon's remaining salary, but he's in a position where he absolutely should -- and probably would -- if it meant acquiring younger talent.

(34, $2.5 million player option + incentives for 2020). Melancon's former Pittsburgh teammate has done two things very well this year. First, he's throwing strikes; his 2.8% walk rate is the third lowest among relievers with at least 30 innings. (He's walked just 4 in 34 2/3 innings.) Second, he's limiting hard contact; of relievers who have allowed a minimum of 100 batted balls, his 31% hard-hit rate is the 13th lowest. His 3.38 ERA is the highest he's ever had since his 2011 rookie year, which is both bad -- it's his highest! -- and great -- his highest is only 3.38!

(26, cannot be a free agent until after 2023). Admittedly, this one is less likely, as Moronta's youth and team control might make him worthwhile to keep. However, if Zaidi really wants to make a splash, putting a low-cost long-term elite arm out there would certainly do it.

Coming off a dazzling rookie campaign, Moronta has continued to impress this season by improving his strikeout rate (from 30.2% to 32.1%) while lowering his walk rate (from a too-high 14.1% to a still-too-high-but-improved 11.3%). He's one of three Giants in the Top 20 lowest-relief-ERA list since the start of 2018, and he's one of two Giants, along with Smith, in the Top 20 in the 2018-19 best-quality-of-contact-from-relievers list.

Moronta is, by any definition, elite.

We're not suggesting that all five of these guys will bring a bounty in return. But we've seen what's happened in previous years, when the A's packaged Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson together and ended up with Blake Treinen -- who tied for sixth in the AL Cy Young Award voting last year -- and two of their current Top 10 prospects per MLB Pipeline in Jesus Luzardo and Sheldon Neuse. We've seen Aroldis Chapman net Gleyber Torres. We've seen Andrew Miller yield Clint Frazier and Justus Sheffield (who later went for James Paxton). We've seen Jonathan Papelbon return Nick Pivetta. And we've seen Melancon swapped for Vázquez, in a trade that wasn't well-received in Pittsburgh at the time and now looks wonderful.

Now, imagine Zaidi making six different trades for Bumgarner and five relievers ... or imagine the packages that could be created. Imagine going to the Twins, rumored to have asked Toronto for both Giles and Marcus Stroman, and pitching Bumgarner and Smith. Imagine going to the resurgent Nationals, who could still badly use relief support behind Doolittle, and offering Smith, Dyson, and Moronta, to remake a bullpen all at once. The possibilities here are nearly endless, and if it means the San Francisco bullpen over the final two months is manned by Gott, Ray Black, Fernando Abad, and Sam Selman, well, so be it. They're interesting stories in their own right.

This could be Zaidi's best chance to remake his new team, because it's unlikely next year's Trade Deadline is going to shape up this way. It's not just about Bumgarner. It's about so much more.