SAN FRANCISCO — Alex Wood is sidelined after contracting COVID-19 while Johnny Cueto is on the 10-day injured list with a right elbow strain, but the second-place Giants are confident they have plenty of pitching to reach the finish line in good shape.
Wondering who will fill in for Wood and Cueto? The answer isn’t straightforward, but the Giants seem to believe the uncertainty can play in their favor.
The days when teams simply replaced an injured starter with their top Triple-A performer are over. Under Farhan Zaidi and Gabe Kapler, the Giants will adopt the same strategy other teams with deep rosters and flexible pitching staffs have used to remain competitive.
When Wood and Cueto’s turns in the rotation come up, expect the Giants to lean on a group of relievers to cover 27 outs.
“I am confident we can do it,” Kapler said Wednesday. “I feel like we have enough volume and we have enough talent in our bullpen to manage these kind of games. Does every team wish they had five healthy, strong starters all the time? Absolutely. I think we’re no different.”
Can relying on frequent “bullpen games” actually work? The strategy was once viewed as radical, but it’s increasingly seen as a mainstream way to navigate a major league game and one that the many successful teams have adopted as a viable option.
For most of the 2021 season, the Dodgers have had their bullpen work all nine innings of a game at least once and often twice a week. With Clayton Kershaw, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin all injured and Trevor Bauer on administrative leave, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts has had 19 pitchers make starts for the club this season. Only two of those pitchers, Walker Buehler and Julio Urías, have started at least 20 games for Los Angeles.
The Rays were one of the first franchises to rely heavily on “openers” and while manager Kevin Cash has had more stability in his rotation this season, Tampa Bay ranks 27th in the majors with 32 quality starts this season. The club with the best record in the American League needed its bullpen to cover a MLB-leading 561 1/3 innings in 2021 entering play on Wednesday, yet Tampa Bay is in first place largely because it has a stable of quality pitchers who can almost all cover multiple innings in the same game.
The Giants are without Wood and Cueto, but Kapler pointed to five current relievers on Wednesday who are capable of recording more than three outs in the same game.
“We’ve got (Jose) Quintana who is built to give us multiple innings, we’ve got Jarlín García who is built up to give us multiple innings, Sam Long falls into that category, we’ve seen Zack Littell gives us two-plus at times, Caleb Baragar is here and can give us two innings,” Kapler said. “We’ve got enough relievers who can get us seven or eight outs and will be able to work as a team of pitchers rather than one or two.”
In Tampa Bay’s bullpen, three of Cash’s most trusted relievers –Andrew Kittredge, Collin McHugh and J.P. Feyereisen– all have more innings pitched than appearances. The Giants may be reluctant to use their highest-leverage arms, Dominic Leone, Tyler Rogers and Jake McGee, for multiple innings at a time, but nearly everyone else will be expected to help cover the load in games Kapler doesn’t have a traditional “starter” to take the ball.
The Giants’ approach to replacing Wood and Cueto with a handful of pitchers instead of one fill-in will surely have a ripple effect on a bullpen that ranks second in the majors behind the Rays with a 3.15 ERA. The challenge for San Francisco’s relievers is avoiding the same issue that plagued the Padres when they endured an 11-15 August.
San Diego entered the month with a MLB-best 2.94 bullpen ERA, but when starters Yu Darvish and Chris Paddack landed on the IL, the Padres typically covered their workloads with bullpen games. The result was an overworked group that posted a 4.31 bullpen ERA that ranked 21st in the league in August.
By covering more innings with some of their lower-leverage relievers, the Giants understand their bullpen may not be quite as effective, but they’re hoping those pitchers can at least produce similar results to a rotation that’s posted a 3.96 ERA since the All-Star break.
Finding success will require a group effort, and that group consists of more than just relief pitchers.
“One way we can be good at protecting one another is when one part of the team is scuffling, another part of the team steps up,” Kapler said. “It’s what we saw earlier in the season or through the middle parts, we had a lot of regular players down for extended periods of time and what we said is somebody is going to take those at-bats and be really good with them.”