Guzman makes push for Giants bullpen with eye-opening outing


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Ronald Guzman has played 246 MLB games and multiple seasons of Winter Ball. He has started a game at Yankee Stadium, batting fourth on a day when Aaron Judge hit the 55th homer of a record-breaking 2022 season. He has been a top 100 prospect and appeared in the Futures Game.

But none of that could compare to the adrenaline that surged through his body when he took the mound earlier this spring. He has learned a valuable lesson in his first spring as a two-way player. 

"If you let the adrenaline take over, you're screwed," he said Thursday, laughing.

Guzman was fully in control in his third appearance of the spring, and over the course of 13 pitches against the Milwaukee Brewers on Thursday, he looked like someone who might be able to help the big league bullpen this season. Guzman struck out the side in the seventh, showing good control of a hard slider, as well as the ability to reach back for 98 mph when he needed it. 

To most in attendance, it simply looked like a tall, athletic left-hander taking a step forward in his bid to make the team at some point. It was normal -- except for the fact that Guzman pretty recently was a power-hitting first baseman. The hard-throwing lefty also happens to have 31 big league homers, including 16 as a rookie with the Texas Rangers in 2018.

"That was a really cool performance," manager Gabe Kapler said. "I think what makes it most interesting is how, with as little mound experience as he has, he comes in and executes his secondary pitches for strikes. It's not one of those things where he's like, 'Oh well, I'm going to fall behind 2-0 with my off-speed pitches and then I'm going to try to get into the zone with my fastball.' It almost feels like he can throw his off-speed at will, which is pretty impressive for a young player."

Kapler caught himself and smiled.

"For an inexperienced pitcher," he added.

Guzman is 28 and has been a professional since signing out of the Dominican Republic in 2011, but as he stands around with other pitchers in camp, he truly is the "youngest" of the group in an important way. He has one of the most powerful arms in camp, but also one of the freshest. 

Guzman played four seasons with the Rangers as a plus-power, low-OBP first baseman, and he was in their camp when action restarted during the pandemic in July of 2020. One day, Guzman and others saw that the scoreboard's radar gun was on. The 6-foot-5 first baseman who had as a child dreamt of being like Randy Johnson stepped on the mound and hit 95 mph. 

That day brought pitching back into Guzman's life, but he tore his meniscus in 2021 and missed most of the year. He spent the majority of the 2022 season in Triple-A with the Yankees, hitting 16 homers with a .344 OBP. Over the final few months of the season, Guzman started working out with the team's pitchers. 

This past offseason, there was no doubt about what was next, and about which team could offer him the best opportunity. He said only one team saw him as a pitcher, first and foremost. 

"That was a big issue, to be honest. Some teams wanted me as a hitter only," Guzman said. "I felt like they were trying to get me as first base depth for the team. The Giants were the only team that wanted me as a pitcher only. They wanted me to pitch only. I had to really think about it and I had to get (on some calls) with them to let them understand and know how I feel about things and how I feel like I've come a long way hitting, as well. 

"I just wanted to get an opportunity and at the end of the day they gave me the opportunity to do both, but mostly focus on pitching. Some other teams kind of rejected me because I knew what I wanted, I wanted to do both and I knew that I had the capability to do both."

Guzman came to camp as a non-roster invitee, with the promise that he would work as a pitcher every day but also take batting practice and do drills in the cage to stay sharp as a hitter. It didn't take long to start opening eyes. Early in camp, Kapler said Guzman was a standout in the bullpen sessions because of how quickly he had gotten a feel for five pitches.

Guzman throws a four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, curveball and changeup. He opened the seventh on Thursday by throwing three straight sliders and getting a strikeout. He went 2-2 on the next batter and then dropped in another slider for a strikeout looking. The third Milwaukee Brewer he faced was Jesse Winker, a longtime big league outfielder who hit 14 homers for the Seattle Mariners last season. Guzman opened him up with fastballs at 98 and 96 mph, then ended the inning with a 2-2 fastball that came in at 97 mph. 

"I felt really good, I felt in control," he said. "I felt like I didn't let the adrenaline take over. It's something new to me and I've been working on it. I felt really comfortable out there."

As Guzman walked back into the dugout, he said, "That's me. That's me." Like most good relievers, he already has the belief he can get anyone out. 

"He just has a lot of bravado and that can lead to throwing strikes," Kapler said. "His stuff is good enough right now. His stuff is good enough to be a Major League pitcher. The strike-throwing would be the thing that you always question with a pitcher that doesn't have a lot of mound experience, but so far, so good."

The outing was by far the most promising for the first player the Giants have listed on their roster as a two-way player, although Guzman doesn't expect to be mimicking Shohei Ohtani anytime soon. As a reliever, it would be more difficult to plan for Guzman getting at-bats because he could be needed on the mound any night. There's also another complication that Ohtani doesn't face.

Ohtani hits left-handed and throws right-handed, but Guzman is left-left and said it would be strenuous to pitch and hit in the same game since his pitching arm is also the strong arm in his swing. For now, it's something the Giants aren't thinking about at all, anyway. 

While Guzman is technically a two-way player, he hasn't appeared in a spring game as a hitter yet. He expects to get at-bats at some point soon, possibly if he starts the year in Triple-A, but it's not at all front and center for the Giants. 

"I haven't even thought for five seconds about his offense and hitting right now," Kapler said. 

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If this all works, the Giants could eventually have a left-handed reliever in their bullpen who also has the ability to put one out of the ballpark or play first base at times, but they're not getting too far ahead. Thursday's outing was about working with adrenaline and continuing to learn. While the sliders were impressive, Guzman smiled and admitted he also threw one curveball by accident because he used the wrong grip. 

There is a long way to go, but the latest outing was fascinating, and could lead to Guzman eventually having to remember what he learned Thursday. He finally harnessed his adrenaline on the mound, but if he keeps throwing like this, Guzman might soon have to figure out how to control it as he stands on the mound in the middle of Oracle Park.

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