Giants see Melancon as savior for 2017
scottsdale, ariz. — The flames from the 2016 San Francisco Giants’ dumpster fire of a bullpen, as flames are wont to do, did the most damage to those in closest proximity. The actual members of those 2016 Giants may never fully get over the last and most spectacular of that bullpen’s many disasters: Game 4 of the National League Division Series, when five relievers failed to hold a three-run lead in the ninth inning at AT&T Park and lost the game and the series to a Chicago Cubs team that would go on to win the World Series.
But viewed from a safe distance, that fire was just a great, sad spectacle on the horizon, one that, if you had any empathy in your heart, would make you feel sorry for the victims. That’s how it looked on television from the comfortable chair where Mark Melancon, a soon-to-be free agent closer, watched with a bit more interest than most of the rubberneckers and gawkers.
“You feel for everybody,” Melancon said of the experience of watching Game 4 on television. “You can’t blame [the loss] on anybody. You lose collectively, and it happened.”
Melancon, wearing a polo shirt, shorts and sandals, said those words in the dugout at Scottsdale Stadium on Friday following the Giants’ first full-squad workout of the 2017 spring training, and the Giants seemed already a more complete team by his presence. He signed a four-year, $62 million contract with them Dec. 5, but you could say he became a Giant the moment the Cubs recorded the final out of Game 4, at the end of that epic bullpen meltdown that shuttered San Francisco’s season.
The Giants’ front office acted swiftly and decisively to solve the team’s most glaring problem, phoning Melancon’s agent within minutes of the free agent market opening at midnight Nov. 8. They flew Melancon to San Francisco for a visit, made an offer and eventually outbid several other teams — including the Washington Nationals, for whom Melancon pitched in the second half of 2016 — for his services.
“We wanted to get in early,” Giants General Manager Bobby Evans said of the Melancon pursuit. “We knew we were going to be in a battle with other clubs, and we just wanted to make it clear early on that we had a lot of interest.”
It took the richest contract in history for a closer — a mark that was topped in the weeks that followed by both Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen — for the Giants to land Melancon. Their payroll probably will soar beyond $200 million for the first time in 2017.
“There was so much positive here,” Melancon said of the Giants. “I enjoyed my time in Washington, but these guys have done it, and they’ve done it consistently. It’s the same core. On my visit here, it was just clear they had their priorities straight. Even their smaller intangibles — it was a great fit.” Of the Giants’ Game 4 loss, he added, “Really, when I was thinking about where to go and deciding, I looked at that as a positive — because these guys have gone through some trials and it’s going to make them hungrier.”
With his 92-mph cut fastball, Melancon, who turns 32 next month, has become one of the best closers in baseball since ascending to that role with the Pirates in the second half of 2013; his 131 saves since the start of the 2014 season are the most in the majors in that span. Last year, which he split between Pittsburgh and Washington, he converted 47 of 51 save attempts, pitched to a 1.64 ERA and allowed only three home runs while facing 270 batters.
Meanwhile, in San Francisco, the Giants’ bullpen, once the envy of baseball, was on its way to blowing a franchise-record 32 saves in 2016, with nine of them coming in September. Eight Giants relievers made 40 or more appearances — despite a rotation featuring three of the top five starters in the NL in innings pitched — as Manager Bruce Bochy tried everything he could to mix-and-match his way through the late innings.
It all came to a head in Game 4. The Giants were three outs from forcing a decisive Game 5 at Wrigley Field, where they would have had Johnny Cueto on the mound (and Madison Bumgarner available in relief), but Bochy cycled through five relievers in a futile attempt to close it out. The loss was the first for the Giants in 12 postseason series under Bochy.
In the aftermath, it was difficult not to play the “what if” game, especially since the Giants had had a chance to acquire Melancon at the July 31 trade deadline, but lost out when the Pirates sent him instead to the Nationals for a pair of hard-throwing, young lefties, Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn. Evans later acknowledged he should have been more willing to give up what the Pirates sought in return to Melancon.
“When we finished the postseason like that, my mind went immediately to the players — because I knew they did everything they could to get us into that position, and to not finish it was very hard,” Evans said Friday. “But it gave us perspective on what we needed to do this winter, and we tried to answer our biggest need with arguably one of the best [closers] out there.”
Remaking the Giants’ bullpen was as much about subtraction as addition. With the free agent defections of right-handers Santiago Casilla (to the Oakland A’s) and Sergio Romo (to the Los Angeles Dodgers) this winter and the retirement of lefty Javier Lopez, the Giants cut ties with a trio of cornerstones who had been part of the team’s World Series-winning bullpens of 2010, 2012 and 2014.
That leaves only one reliever left in the Giants’ bullpen, righthander Hunter Strickland, who was part of one of their World Series championships.
Difficult as it is to say goodbye, there will come a day soon when the bullpen gate at AT&T Park will open, and the person jogging through it toward the mound will give all who witness it a feeling of calm instead of one of anxiety.
But one deeply submerged, nagging thought will be fighting to reach the surface: How far might the Giants have gone if they had had Mark Melancon in October?
Former Nationals closer Mark Melancon has 131 saves the past three seasons — the most in the majors.