OAKLAND — The Giants saved their biggest roster surprise for the final day of the exhibition season on Saturday. They’re going to start 2017 with just one left-handed pitcher in their bullpen, and he’s a converted rookie starter.
A day after optioning left-hander Josh Osich to Triple-A, the Giants did likewise with another lefty who actually had a terrific spring, Steven Okert, and instead kept non-roster right-hander Neil Ramirez to fill out their relief corps.
That leaves Ty Blach as the only left-hander in the bullpen, and he’s not only a rookie, he’s started the spring competing with veteran Matt Cain for the fifth starter spot. That’s a far cry from the usual left-right balance manager Bruce Bochy prefers, but the Giants simply did not want to lose Ramirez, who struck out 19 batters in 11 1/3 innings and walked just four in 11 appearances.
Ramirez, 27, has major league time with the Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins but has electric stuff and it won over the Giants, and he could have opted out and gone elsewhere if he did not make the roster. He had to be very impressive to beat out Okert, who allowed just four hits and one one in 9 1/3 innings this spring.
That means the Giants will have Blach from the left side and Derek Law, Cory Gearrin, Hunter Strickland, George Kontos, Ramirez and closer Mark Melancon from the right side in their bullpen to start the regular season. ,
“It’s not an easy call on that last one,” said Bochy. “They’re all deserving. Okert had a very nice spring. He gave up one run. He did all he could. But this is where we’re at right now and how we want to start this. We did not want to lose Ramirez, who had a good spring, too. So we’re set to go in the bullpen.”
That could prove debatable. The Giants lost their primary left-hander, of course, when Will Smith suffered an elbow injury this spring and had to undergo Tommy John surgery. He’s out for the year. Blach, who lost the rotation battle with Cain, will now perform a variety of roles as the only lefty. He’ll go short or long depending on the situation, but the Giants will depend a lot more on their right-handed relievers to get key left-handed hitters out.
Bochy admitted it’s not the optimum situation, but maintained it’s not something he hasn’t faced before. When the San Diego Padres made it all the way to the World Series in 1996, he said he had no left-handed relievers whatsoever. In actuality, that team had Ron Villone, who appeared in 21 games, and Al Osuna, who appeared in 10, from the left side. But it was primarily a right-handed relief staff, and that’s what he has now.
“If anything, it keeps you from going out there so many times,” the manager said.
Bochy did say he hoped Osich could straighten out his spring struggles and re-join the club at some point, and Okert could be an option as well. But for now, Ramirez was simply too good to cast away..
“It wasn’t too long ago that this guy was one of the best relievers in the game,” the manager said. “You go back to 2014, the year he had, and he’s worked hard to get back to where he’s at. That’s why we didn’t want to take a chance of losing him.”
In 2014, Ramirez was 3-3 with three saves with the Cubs, posting a 1.44 ERA in 50 games and allowed just 29 hits in 43 2/3 innings with 53 strikeouts. Right shoulder inflammation troubled him throughout 2015, however, and he bounced around with three organizations last season. The Giants signed him to a minor league deal in November.
“It came down to the last minute, and I just did what I could all spring,” Ramirez said. “When I was called to pitch, I just tried to get guys out in any situation.”