Coming into 2014, one of the reliable assets for the San Francisco Giants was a bullpen familiar with their roles after a few seasons together. Bruce Bochy has had the luxury of going to arms who have been on the team for a while.
Sergio Romo and Jeremy Affeldt are the longest tenured Giants relievers. Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez joined in 2010 to form the current foundation. Add in a hard throwing J.C. Gutierrez and Jean Machi who had an 0.29 ERA last week, and that’s a bullpen any manager would like to have.
Sergio Romo began in 2008 as a 25 year old and worked his way in as a middle relief arm. Once his unique slider proved it could get big league hitters out, Romo quickly became a coveted late inning arm. He’s been reliable the past four years, making at least 65 appearances for Bochy. From 2010-2013, Romo’s ERAs have been 2.18, 1.50, 1.79, and 2.54. In his seven year career, he owns a 5.39 strikeout-to-walk ratio, including an incredible 14:1 in 2011 when he struck out 70 batters and walked only five in 65 appearances.
In 2012 he assumed the closer role when Brian Wilson and Santiago Casilla went down to injuries.He earned 14 saves including memorable ones against the Cincinnati Reds and Detroit Tigers. He pitched a flawless three total innings for three saves and got Miguel Cabrera for the lasting memorable image of 2012’s World Series sweep. While those performances will never vanish, time doesn’t suspend itself.
MLB teams can’t afford to simply run teams based on great moments from the past. It’s an unfortunate vicious, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately cycle to maintain competitiveness and relevancy. That’s why no player is ever bigger than the game. The game will be here longer than any great player will. Sergio Romo’s resume has been fantastic up to this point. The Giants, fans, and pundits alike know what he’s brought to the table. But it’s about what he’s doing now, or not doing for that matter. As quickly as he was lauded for his success, he can be just as forgotten if this is more than a mere bump in the road. That can be said for any player, especially in this day and age of short attention spans. Brian Wilson became the toast of San Francisco after 2010, and boy was it fleeting. His numbers regressed in 2011 (still was an All Star though) and pitched two games in 2012. Another elbow surgery and free agency later made him a thing of the past. Part of it was due to Romo not missing a beat to help win a second World Series.
Until this season, the 31 year old’s highest ERA has been 3.97 back in 2009. He’s got a 5.17 ERA going and blew his fifth save last Saturday night giving up a towering bomb to Brandon Phillips with a 1-0 lead. The home run was his sixth allowed, which also ties a career high in just his 33rd game of the season. He began 2014 on a nice roll, though hitters were getting on base and making contact off him more than usual. His 22 saves put him fifth most in the N.L., but it’s apparent the slider is not on point as consistently. That’s important since Romo is essentially a one pitch guy with the exception of a rarely used fastball. What makes him special is his ability to throw his one dominant pitch to hitters who know what’s coming and still retire them.
When the Rockies swept the Giants and Romo blew two of those games, Mike Krukow commented postgame Colorado’s hitters were leaning out over the plate to cover the slider. Romo’s slider hasn’t been as sharp. Since it failed to dive as hard, the Rockies’ bats were able to cover the outer half and make hard contact. Last season he shut up doubters who said he couldn’t be a full time closer with 38 saves and an All Star spot. Romo is listed at 5-10, 185 pounds and I’ve stood next to him once in the Giants clubhouse. If you believe the media guide’s numbers, I’ve got several parcels of idyllic Las Vegas desert to sell you with a breathtaking ocean view.
Part of the reason Romo could be hitting a wall is physical. He’s not a big guy by any standards. Closers are usually imposing types who’s bodies can handle the rigors and demands of throwing extremely hard multiple days a week. It doesn’t guarantee vindication from injury, but most personnel guys would rather take their chances with a body type like Craig Kimbrel, Kenley Jansen, or Grant Balfour. Then again Kansas City’s Greg Holland and Boston’s Koji Uehara aren’t behemoths and have been reliable in their own right. You look at a former Giant like Joe Nathan, who I always liked, and he is a huge presence on the mound. He’s 6-4, 240 pounds and nearly 40 years old. Nathan’s 6.37 ERA as a Detroit Tiger is a career worst this season, but he’s been one of the most dependable closers for over a decade. By dependable, I mean accumulating 30-40 saves, while remaining healthy most of his career.
Physical fatigue coupled with a few blown saves can quickly shake a guy’s confidence. Sergio Romo is confident, but he also understands it might behoove him to try and get on track in a seventh or eighth inning role. It’s his second season as closer and he’s not the first to go through a difficult time and won’t be the last one. Numerous relievers and closers go through phases where they have to make adjustments and regain whatever they lost.The Oakland A’s systematic value based approach backfired on them when they dealt Jemile Weeks for Baltimore’s Jim Johnson. Johnson had back-to-back 50 save campaigns only to begin 2014 horrendously and immediately lose his spot to Sean Doolittle. Johnson has a 5.94 ERA and a WHIP near two. The closer position is one of the most stressful and taxing roles in baseball. It’s physically and mentally exhausting.
Near 30 % of MLB games are decided by one run. The position demands a short memory whether you save a game or blow it. While Romo attempts to fix his issues, the Giants will rely on Affeldt and Casilla as ninth inning options. Casilla has done it before and I’d expect him to get many of the opportunities. He’s having a great 2014 with a 1.15 ERA and 0.86 WHIP.
There’s going to be relief help available on the market in July. San Diego’s Huston Street is having one those great seasons for a closer on a sub .500 team. He’s got 22 saves with a 0.90 ERA. All signs point to him being dealt. He may not be the only reliever dangled by the Padres. Maybe the Giants are one of the teams who inquire about Joaquin Benoit and Dale Thayer theoretically as well. San Diego’s 2.35 bullpen ERA leads MLB, while San Francisco’s has fallen off some to 2.97, good for sixth.
There is still a month before the deadline and it can affect how some teams define their season. Jonathan Papelbon is a guy Philadelphia has been trying to unload, but I don’t see the Giants pining for a $13 million reliever despite his good numbers. It’s more logical to see them inquiring about arms like Minnesota’s Matt Guerrier, Tampa Bay’s Jake McGee, Miami’s Steve Cishek, or dare I say Arizona’s Josh Collmenter if they are indeed trade bait. If nothing can be done in that regard, plenty of Romo’s teammates and Bochy himself publicly voiced their support for him. All options and hypotheticals considered, the Giants are expecting Romo to ingratiate himself as closer once more before too long. As Tower of Power once sang, “Time Will Tell.”