Giants haunted by lack of effective bullpen arms vs. Padres originally appeared on NBC Sports Bayarea
On one mound was righty Yunior Marte, who has been optioned to Triple-A four times this year. On the other was lefty Alex Young, who has been in the organization for about three weeks. Long before Tyler Rogers gave up a walk-off homer, that was the latest sign that the staff is scrambling to get through the late innings of close games.
The Giants fell behind and then ultimately tied things up against Josh Hader, and when they did, manager Gabe Kapler turned to Rogers. He has had a tough year, but at the moment he was easily the best option for a tired bullpen.
John Brebbia has been Kapler's most trusted setup man, but he has been overworked and needed a night off. Camilo Doval had pitched two days in a row, and Kapler and his coaches are trying to look out for his gifted right arm, so he was only available in a true save situation.
It was far from ideal. The problem for the Giants is that it's hard to see how it gets much better as they try to sneak back into the playoff race.
They have a bullpen that has been bad for several months now, and some of the key arms have looked like they're running on fumes with more than 50 games to go. A year after he came back from Tommy John surgery, Brebbia leads the majors with 53 appearances. The staff has noticed a lack of sharpness in recent outings. He is one of three Giants relievers -- along with Doval and Rogers -- in the top six in the league in appearances.
Before Wednesday's game, Kapler said "there's been a lot of discussion" internally about how to keep guys fresh and get some back on the right track.
"We're doing everything that we possibly can to keep guys healthy for the long haul and try to get as much rest as possible, so some of these guys that we've depended on -- John Brebbia, Dom Leone, Tyler Rogers, Camilo Doval -- are as effective as possible when they do hit the mound," he said. "It's still a work in progress and we're going to keep grinding."
The struggles continued Wednesday, although Kapler was at least able to get his high-leverage arms another day to recover. Young, Marte and Jarlin García saved the others, but the bullpen was charged with seven more runs -- four of them earned -- in a 13-7 loss.
A year after leading the majors with a 2.99 bullpen ERA, the Giants rank 27th at 4.45. They are allowing opposing hitters to bat .262, the worst mark in the league, and rank 29th in strikeout rate. They are 28th in Win Probability Added a year after finishing second.
"I don't think it's a secret. [It's] several months of not very good," Kapler said after the loss. "We can be a whole lot better."
Relievers are inconsistent year-to-year in general, so the Giants expected some regression from the group, but they still have been surprised by how hard they've been hit. Jake McGee, the closer for most of 2021, was DFA'd in the first half and has since been DFA'd by his next team, the Brewers. Jose Alvarez is on the IL. Zack Littell is, too, and he also has been optioned once this year. Several other pitchers have taken a step back in performance, and there have been other problems that have limited the pen's effectiveness.
The awful defense has hurt the starting staff but also the relievers, most notably Rogers, who has allowed a .310 batting average on balls in play and has a 4.85 ERA. All of the errors and misplays have also led to starters throwing extra pitches, which has brought the bullpen into play earlier, wearing down key pieces and keeping Kapler from playing some preferred matchups.
The exception has been Doval, who hit 102.9 mph on Monday night and is emerging as one of the most overpowering relievers in the league. Doval makes it look effortless at times, but the Giants have still tried to watch his usage. He has yet to pitch on three consecutive days this season, although the Giants did have him warming up Tuesday to come in if they had taken the lead off Hader.
Doval was part of a trio that zoomed through the minors, and the Giants hoped all three would add young depth to their big league bullpen. But Gregory Santos has struggled with his command and doesn't seem to have enough deception to allow his triple-digit fastball to overpower hitters. Kervin Castro saw his stuff and command take big steps back in Triple-A this year and was DFA'd.
The next wave is on the way, led by three more hard-throwing right-handers. R.J. Dabovich earned a promotion to Triple-A this summer but has since struggled to throw strikes. Randy Rodriguez, who is already on the 40-man roster, was recently promoted to Triple-A. Double-A right-hander Cole Waites has already earned one promotion this year and could soon join the others in Sacramento.
They are intriguing arms, but they are not ready yet, so any quick fix will have to come from guys who already have seen the big leagues.
Littell is nearing the end of his rehab assignment for a strained oblique and should be back soon. During an appearance on "Giants Talk" last week, president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said he anticipates lefty Thomas Szapucki providing a boost, too. He had been a starter in the Mets system but was moved to relief in July, and the Giants got him in the J.D. Davis-Darin Ruf trade.
"[That] was really a big part of that deal," Zaidi said. "He's been shortened up and moved to the pen and we think he can really help us."
It is not usually a good idea to trade prospects for relievers at the deadline, and the Giants stuck to the plan even as their bullpen struggles continued. Zaidi said they wanted to "maintain bullpen flexibility," knowing that a lot of moves might be needed in August and September to keep arms fresh.
"It's the dog days and you're going to have some tired pitching staffs," he said. "So going out and trading for a rental reliever who is locked in on your roster doesn't really provide that."
There were no additions, and the Giants were hopeful they could fill the gaps internally. If guys are going to step up, they'll need to do it soon. With their playoff chances dwindling, Kapler finds himself in the uncomfortable position of searching for bullpen arms he can trust.