The San Francisco Giants’ bullpen took a bit of a hit on Wednesday, as the team announced that left-hander Jeremy Affeldt will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list with a sprained MCL, which will sideline him for at least the first week of the season.
With this announcement, lefty David Huff and right-hander Yusmeiro Petit seem to be even safer bets to make the team on Opening Day, while right-hander Jean Machi seems to be a relative lock as well. Unless the Giants decide to go with a short bench and keep every reliever that they have left in camp, this would leave one big-league spot up for grabs between non-roster invitees Derek Law and J.C. Gutierrez, as the Giants have indicated that no players who have already been sent to minor league camp will be reconsidered for major-league roles.
While Law’s exceptional command and deceptive delivery give him a great shot at a successful major-league career in the future, it would be foolish to keep him over Gutierrez at this point. Gutierrez, a solidly-built flamethrower, is a 30-year-old who is a veteran of five major-league seasons, during which he has picked up 24 saves. In contrast, Law is a 23-year-old whose greatest experience comes from 22 games that he pitched at High-A San Jose during the second half of 2013.
The organization fell in love with Law after seeing him throw 12.1 scoreless innings in the Arizona Fall League. Though he has plenty of potential, it is important that they don’t rush Law too much. In recent years, we have seen the Giants rush other pitchers through the system, including Dan Runzler and Mike Kickham, only to have them eventually burn out and struggle with confidence issues. At least Runzler and Kickham logged some time in Triple-A; Law has spent just a short amount of time in High-A, yet he’s already seen as a big-league contributor. Allowing him to break camp with the team could mean a dynamic addition to the bullpen, but there is a greater chance that it could end up irreparably breaking his confidence when he isn’t ready yet.
Even if the readiness aspect of things wasn’t a factor, Gutierrez has out-performed Law this spring. While facing slightly better competition (an 8.3 opponent quality compared to Law’s 8.1, according to Baseball Reference), Gutierrez has struck out eight batters over 9.2 innings while holding hitters to a .194 average and allowing only two earned runs.
That’s not to say Law hasn’t been effective; he’s held hitters to a .190 average while striking out six hitters in six innings. But his March 23 outing against the Kansas City Royals showed that he still needs to work on his consistency, as Law walked a hitter, balked, and allowed two earned runs while only recording one out. He has a cumulative 4.50 ERA for the spring, and while it’s fair to argue that that number is inflated, Law simply has not done as much to assert himself for a job this spring as Gutierrez has.
No matter who makes the roster between Gutierrez and Law, the Giants will have to create a 40-man roster spot, as infielder Brandon Hicks will take the roster vacancy that was created by Tony Abreu’s release last week. Look for infielder Nick Noonan or outfielder Roger Kieschnick, both of whom have fallen down the organizational depth chart this spring, to be candidates for removal. Another possibility, though expensive, would involve the Giants recalling reliever Hunter Strickland from San Jose, where he was assigned earlier this spring, and placing him on the 60-day disabled list. Strickland is recovering from Tommy John surgery and is not projected to return until early summer. His recall and disabled list placement would create a roster vacancy, though it would allow him to accrue major-league service time and earn a big-league salary. It may be more efficient for the Giants to just part with a player and avoid the hassle of working around the roster limit with Strickland.