Bob Melvin

How Giants' young pitchers remind Melvin of A's playoff teams

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SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- On the first day of camp last month, Alex Cobb stood in front of a group of reporters and glanced to his right. The oldest player on the roster nodded at a large collection of pitching prospects standing in the center of the room, players he was familiar with from an offseason spent rehabbing after hip surgery. Cobb smiled as he thought back to those tedious sessions in the weight room at the club's Papago Park facility.

"You feel like you don't belong watching these guys in the weight room," Cobb said. "They're lifting the house and you're just over there rehabbing your left hip with 10-pound dumbbells."

Seemingly all of the pitching prospects stand 6-foot-3 or taller, with broad shoulders that produce mid-to-upper 90s fastballs, along with nasty variations of breaking balls. With a couple of exceptions, they are all lockered along one row in the clubhouse, and because they're not seasoned enough to find somewhere else to be when the room opens to outsiders every morning, it hasn't been hard to miss the collection of young pitchers this spring. 

For the organization, that's kind of the point. 

"We want to elevate our young pitchers," president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said earlier this month after signing Matt Chapman. "There's uncertainty that comes with the fact that there's a lack of familiarity. Young pitchers are definitionally not household names, but we think that the more they get a chance to prove themselves, you sort of have to take the leap with them at some point, and this is something we've been planning for a couple of years, to get younger in the rotation and give these guys the opportunities to win jobs."

It's not hard to find the origin of that plan. The Giants built their 2020 MLB draft around going over-slot for Kyle Harrison in the third round, but it was really in 2021 that the front office leaned into building a pitching pipeline. San Francisco's first nine draft picks in 2021 were pitchers, and a year later, the amateur scouting group selected two-way player Reggie Crawford in the first round and then took pitchers with nine of the next 11 picks.

A year after Harrison arrived -- along with Keaton Winn, Tristan Beck and Ryan Walker -- others are on the brink. At the moment, Mason Black, a third-round pick in 2021 is the frontrunner for the fifth starter spot, which would give the Giants three rookies in their Opening Day rotation.

This is perhaps not what Bob Melvin had in mind when he drove up the coast in October, but Melvin hasn't shown much concern about the state of his rotation. He has been here before with the 2012 A's, a team Zaidi worked for. 

Those A's got 110 starts and more than 800 innings out of rookie pitchers, who combined for a 3.68 ERA. The A's started that season with Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy leading the way, but Colon was suspended for PED use and McCarthy's season ended in early September when he was hit by a line drive. They still jumped from 74 wins to 94, winning the AL West by one game. A few weeks later, Melvin was named AL Manager of the Year.

"We ended up with five rookie starters at the end and it was a magical end of the season," Melvin said on Monday's Giants Talk Podcast. "The Texas Rangers had gone to two World Series previous to that and had starpower names all over the place. Other than Yoenis Cespedes and maybe Coco Crisp -- Josh Donaldson was on the team but really not a name at that point in time -- you couldn't name three or four guys on our team. We end up winning the division because of a lot of the things we've talked about here in playing together and playing for your team.

"It doesn't have to be all the sexiest names in the world to win and I see a lot of that in this team here with the depth. Farhan was there back then, so a lot of the same things are trying to be accomplished here. Again, it's going to revolve around young, talented pitching, and that excites me."

Melvin pointed out that going with that plan was "Kind of the way we had to do things in Oakland," but the Giants certainly have the ability to go big if they want to. Thus far, Zaidi has mostly stayed away from the top end of the pitching market in San Francisco, although the Giants did push hard for Yoshinobu Yamamoto early in the offseason and feel he might have been a Giant had he not felt the pull of joining Shohei Ohtani and the Dodgers. 

Zaidi pivoted to Jordan Hicks, who signed a four-year deal to transition from relieving, and Robbie Ray, a former Cy Young Award winner who is rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. As the Giants have watched the rest of the market evolve with Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery remaining unsigned, they have thought often of Cobb and Ray. 

Cobb pitched two innings in a minor league game on Saturday and now looks like he might be back weeks ahead of schedule, potentially at some point in early April. Ray is due back in July.

"Although we don't have those guys at the beginning of the season, we have to account for the fact that they are going to be in the rotation," Zaidi said earlier this month. "In Alex's case, probably relatively soon into the year, and in Robbie's case, it's maybe more midseason, but he's doing really well."

Teams usually rely on young pitching to break through late in the year, but the Giants hope to put a twist on that this season. Their young pitchers will soak up more innings in April and May than they usually would, with the goal of having some combination of Logan Webb, Ray, Cobb, Harrison, Hicks and Winn in the second half. 

Black has emerged as the likeliest to see a meaty role in April and has spent most of the spring as a regular member of the rotation. If more help is needed, Carson Whisenhunt could debut relatively quickly. The left-hander with a killer changeup was just a few days away from a promotion to Triple-A last season when his elbow flared up, and he might have ended last season in the big leagues had he stayed healthy. 

Landen Roupp has impressed this spring and should see big league innings at some point this season. Others to know include Kai-Wei Teng, a Triple-A starter who already is on the 40-man roster, along with Trevor McDonald, Randy Rodriguez, Hayden Birdsong and Carson Seymour. 

The Giants were careful with their young pitchers this spring, and both Teng and Whisenhunt dealt with minor injuries that perhaps kept them from battling Black for spring starts. They should both begin the season in Triple-A as part of a Sacramento River Cats staff that ideally will provide help for the big league rotation all season long. 

Melvin has been here before with guys like Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone and A.J. Griffin. He isn't afraid to pin his hopes on high-upside young pitchers. 

"It's talent, and they're impressionable and they're coachable," Melvin said earlier this spring. "For a coaching staff, it's refreshing. Talent rules the day and we really wanted to impress upon them to build a foundation, throw strikes, your stuff is going to play. You start to tinker a little bit with grips and different pitches and maybe at times with younger guys getting a little too far ahead of yourselves. Establish a foundation of what you can do well on the mound and then work from there."

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