Brian Wilson underwent successful Tommy John surgery
The San Francisco Giants have had the luxury of having a top-flight closer in Brian Wilson since 2008. Wilson has averaged over 41 saves for Giants over the past four seasons.
After enduring a plethora of injuries that derailed the team in 2011, the Giants were hoping for good health this year. Unfortunately, the injury bug has bitten their All-Star closer. Wilson recently underwent his second Tommy John surgery and will be lost for the entire 2012 season.
The Giants are expected to challenge for the NL West division title and hope to make another deep run into the postseason. In order for them to accomplish this, they must replace Wilson and find someone to close out games.
The Giants have a strong veteran bullpen. More than any other team in the National League, they appear to have the depth to overcome this major hurdle.
Manager Bruce Bochy has several quality arms to choose from, as he determines who will pitch the ninth inning. He has previously stated that he will use matchups to make his decisions, which totally makes sense.
However, there will undoubtedly be one pitcher that takes the ball in these situations more than the others. Let's take a detailed look at the closer candidates and who will get the lion's share of those opportunities.
Guillermo Mota will be 39 years old in July
Guillermo Mota has pitched for the Giants since the 2010 season and is a trusted long reliever out of the bullpen. Mota was valuable in the Giants' World Series run of 2010 and can still get people out.
In 2011, Mota threw 80.1 innings, allowed 71 hits and finished the year with an ERA of 3.81. Mota had 77 strikeouts, allowed 30 walks and had a WHIP of 1.257.
Mota, who will be 39 years of age in late July, can still throw in the low to mid 90's. His pitches have a lot of movement and he has proven his worth to the Giants and many other teams.
Mota is best utilized a couple of times a week. If he is used more than that, I have noticed that his velocity and command suffers. That is not the mode of a closer and although Mota is still a solid pitcher, he generally will not be on the mound to close.
Heath Hembree is being groomed by the Giants as the closer of the future. He has dominated in the minor leagues since joining the organization in 2010.
During his tenure in the minors, Hembree has thrown a total of 70.1 innings and allowed only 50 hits, while compiling an ERA of 1.79. Hembree's WHIP ratio is a very good 1.095. He has struck out 105 hitters, roughly one-and-a-half per inning, while issuing only 28 walks.
Currently at the Giants' Triple-A affiliate in Fresno, the Giants would like the 23-year-old Hembree to gain more experience. Ideally, the Giants' relief corps stays intact for the remainder of the season, but should they need to bring up another quality arm, Hembree is likely to get the call.
Hembree has a live arm and features a fastball in the mid to upper 90's. The Giants want him to work on his secondary pitches and his overall command.
Hembree will probably be the Giants closer at some point in his career. However, to expect him to step into the closer role now would be putting more pressure on the young man than the Giants brass wants at this point in his career.
Clay Hensley has looked good in a Giants uniform
The San Francisco Giants originally drafted and signed Clay Hensley back in 2002. However, he never pitched for them until this year, as he ultimately broke into the major leagues with San Diego in 2005.
Hensley had a down year in 2011, as his ERA ballooned up to 5.19. The Giants picked him up this past winter and he had a great spring to make the ballclub.
Hensley has battled arm trouble in previous years, but he looks healthy and is throwing the ball well. He has been very effective thus far in 2012, as he has not allowed an earned run in five innings.
Hensley saved seven games for the Marlins in 2010 and has added one for the Giants already this year. He may get a few chances here and there, but will not be one of the primary choices for Bruce Bochy.
Jeremy Affeldt enters his fourth season in San Francisco
Veteran left-hander Jeremy Affeldt will likely get some chances to close this year. He pitched well in 2011, allowing 47 hits over 61.2 innings. He struck out 54 batters, while walking 24 and compiling an ERA of 2.63.
Affeldt features a hard sinker and good breaking stuff. When he's throwing well, Affeldt can get both right and left handed hitters out. As one of two left-handed pitchers in the bullpen, Affeldt is extremely valuable.
Expect to see him on the mound to close a few games periodically, but he will not be the Giants' main closer option.
Javier Lopez is extremely tough on left-handed hitters.
Javier Lopez came to the Giants prior to the trade deadline in 2010. He was instrumental in helping the Giants win their first World Series title in San Francisco.
In 27 appearances in 2010 with the Giants, Lopez came through with an amazing WHIP of 0.684. He was especially valuable in the postseason against the Phillies, as he repeatedly was brought in to face tough left-handed hitters Chase Utley and Ryan Howard. His WHIP against Philadelphia was a microscopic 0.462
A left-handed relief specialist, Lopez enters a game specifically to get one or two left-handed batters out. Lopez is extremely effective against left-handed hitters, holding them to a .163 average and no home runs, in 2011.
Lopez is not nearly as strong against right-handed hitters, allowing an average of .276.
Manager Bruce Bochy will use Lopez when the game is on the line against tough left-handed bats. This being the case, Lopez will see some situational save opportunities.
Sergio Romo was Brian Wilson's 8th-inning setup man
Sergio Romo generally pitched the eight inning for the Giants, acting as Brian Wilson's setup man. He is a side-arm thrower and came into the league as tough on right-handed batters, but vulnerable to lefties.
Romo has a devastating slider that is particularly tough against right-handed hitters. He has developed a two-seam fastball to go along with a four-seamer. The two-seam fastball will tail away from left-handed hitters.
Another key to Romo's improvement against left-handed hitters has been the development of a very effective changeup, which also tails away from those left-handed bats.
Romo had an extremely strong season in 2011. He threw 48 innings and allowed only 29 hits. Romo also has excellent command of the strike zone, as he struck out 70, while walking only six. Romo's ERA of 1.50 and WHIP of 0.708 were also outstanding.
With all of these accomplishments, it's interesting to note that Romo has only three career saves in 212 appearances. Romo is extremely emotional on the mound and the Giants seem to prefer keeping him in the seventh or eighth inning.
The other thing about Romo is that he has had one or two stints on the disabled list over the past few seasons. Whether it was an issue with his arm or his knee, Romo is not the sturdiest of pitchers.
Bruce Bochy has been careful not to overuse Romo. His effectiveness declines and the potential for injury increases, when he pitches too much. Romo can be quite dominant, but only when he's used properly.
I expect that Romo will get a few save opportunities, but he will not be the main guy.
Santiago Casilla has electric "stuff"
The pitcher who I believe will receive the most save opportunities is Santiago Casilla. He has dominant stuff and also has experience closing games. When Brian Wilson went down last year, Casilla stepped in and earned six saves for the Giants.
Casilla has been very effective since coming to San Francisco in 2010. In each of the past two seasons, his ERA has been under 2.00.
Casilla also has swing-and-miss stuff. He features a fastball in the mid-90's and also has a devastating slider. Since joining the Giants. Casilla has thrown 111.2 innings and struck out 103 batters.
Look for Casilla to get the majority of save chances for the Giants. If he is successful, and I believe he will be, the Giants will be very tough to beat this season.
Matt Cain anchors an excellent starting rotation
The San Francisco Giants have arguably the best pitching staff in baseball. With starters Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner anchoring the rotation, the expectation is for these three to go deep in games.
Ryan Vogelsong was the surprise of 2011, but missed his first start as he was recovering from a back injury. He's back now and throwing the ball well. The fifth starter, Barry Zito, has also pitched well, sporting a 1.71 ERA in three starts.
The strong starting rotation eases the pressure on the entire pitching staff. General Manager Brian Sabean has built a very deep, strong bullpen and manager Bruce Bochy is very adept at getting the most out of his relief pitchers.
The Giants have been much more proficient offensively. The addition of Melky Cabrera, a hot Pablo Sandoval and the return of Buster Posey have energized the Giants offense. The improved offense also helps to relieve the stress on the pitching staff.
The Giants will miss Brian Wilson, but they have the pitchers to overcome his loss. I fully expect the Giants to be right in the thick of the playoff hunt this season.