The Giants’ pitching depth takes another hit, but optimism in young arms abounds

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — One day after agent Scott Boras declared a “pitching panic” in spring training camps beset by rotation injuries, the Giants’ potential reservoir of innings got a little shallower.

Right-hander Sean Hjelle was diagnosed with a right elbow sprain that he hopes will respond to rest and treatment, but almost certainly will rule him out for the Opening Day roster. Right-hander Tristan Beck, who was penciled into the rotation entering the spring, underwent successful vascular surgery to repair an aneurysm in his upper right arm and won’t be able to pick up a baseball for two months. And another rotation incumbent, right-hander Keaton Winn, is just now graduating to live batting practice after being set back with a bout of elbow inflammation.

Neither of those three injured pitchers were expected to form the front end of the rotation behind ace right-hander Logan Webb. But after Webb, the Giants will have to figure out a way to soak up innings in games when converted reliever Jordan Hicks and rookie Kyle Harrison — two stuff-first pitchers without a track record for efficiency — exhaust their pitch count early. And the Giants will have to figure out how the heck to round out a rotation that will require a fifth starter in the season-opening road trip against the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers.

But ask Webb where the innings will come from and you won’t detect any panic.

“I do think a lot of these young guys here can pitch,” Webb said. “I’m not worried about it at all. I’m more worried about me pitching better than what I’ve done. But yeah, there are guys here who are ready to step up and eat some innings.”

Webb mentioned the potential for contributions from non-roster invitees including Daulton Jefferies, Ethan Small and Blayne Enlow. But it’s the homegrown prospects in camp who are making the biggest impression and who appear poised to help the major-league club sooner than anticipated. That’s not to suggest the Giants should feel comfortable taking themselves out of talks with Boras for free-agent left-handers Blake Snell or Jordan Montgomery. But it’s never advantageous to enter a negotiation in a panic. Perhaps the Giants’ groundswell of young pitching might be what allows them to keep a cool head.

“We’ve talked about this being the plan all offseason: we want to elevate our young pitchers,” Giants president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi said on Saturday. “There’s a (perceived) urgency because there’s a lack of familiarity, but we think the more they get the chance to prove themselves … you have to take the leap at some point. This is something we’ve been planning for a couple years to get younger in our rotation and give these guys an opportunity to win jobs.”

That’s the neatest part of this spring for pitching coach J.P. Martinez: from the time he joined the Giants in 2021, the organization had circled this spring as the time when their pitching pipeline would begin to gush. In 2021, the Giants used each of their top nine draft picks on pitching. In 2022, they took pitchers with their top six selections and 10 of their top 12 picks. Many of those pitchers are not just in major-league camp but are competing for jobs.

“This was when we thought guys would be cycling up and that’s exciting,” Martinez said. “We’re getting to see these pitchers that we’ve been developing really get after it and try to win a place on the roster. So we’re in good shape. We feel really good internally even though optically there’s some concern.”

Who have been the standouts? I spent the past three days surveying the Giants clubhouse while putting the question to Giants catchers and pitching coaches. Which young arm has made an impression on you this spring? And which individual pitch stands out as an especially effective weapon?

Landen Roupp’s name was mentioned most often — catcher Patrick Bailey didn’t let me finish the question before Roupp’s name was out of his mouth — even though the right-hander has been limited to throwing live batting practice twice as the Giants ramp him up slowly from last year’s season-ending lower back injury. Manager Bob Melvin said Roupp will make his exhibition debut with an inning Thursday night against the Dodgers.

But Roupp wasn’t the only pitcher who drew rave reviews. Here are some of thoughts on the Giants’ young arms from those who’ve have the closest view of them this spring:

Catcher Patrick Bailey

Who has stood out?

“Landen Roupp. He’s looked really good. I caught him in ’22 a lot (in High-A Eugene). He’s electric. Really good tempo, really good breaking ball. It’s two-plane, upper 70s. There aren’t too many breaking balls like it. Maybe a little slower than Charlie Morton’s but it’s got the big horizontal (movement) and the big depth. A lot of tilt. Not a lot of guys can throw that. There’s times he’ll shake to it 3-0. He’s got that much confidence and command in in, which I love. Not only that, he’s able to locate it just below the zone, he’s able to backdoor it to lefties, dump ’em in to righties. He’s got command of the breaking ball honestly like nobody I’ve ever seen. And he’s got a short little cutter-slider. That’s also a good pitch. And he’s developing a changeup that at times has been good. So I’m excited for him. He just has to stay healthy.”

Roupp throwing a bullpen this spring. (Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

What pitch has stood out?

“(Hayden) Birdsong has a pretty loud fastball. I haven’t caught it but hitting against it, seeing the ride and velo and execution, it’s a good pitch. And then Randy Rodríguez. He looks unbelievable. He’s just got to fill up (the zone). He’s probably got the best fastball in camp. It’s the approach angle from a shorter guy and shorter release. He’s throwing 97-100 right now and averages, like, 18 (inches of vertical break). It’s just got to be in the zone.”

Who has stood out?

“Landon Roupp. I mean, he’s good.”

What pitch has stood out?

“The lefty I caught (Monday), (non-roster invitee) Juan Sanchez, his changeup was really good. He’s a lefty throwing 95-96 (mph), but he’s got the same arm action with the changeup. It kind of dives more down than it fades. It reminds me of Webb’s. Well, maybe not quite the same because Webby is Webby. But when in doubt, call the changeup. I haven’t caught him too much but that much I already know.”

Who has stood out?

“Kyle Harrison for sure.”

(Informed that Harrison was out of bounds for this exercise because he’s already made his debut, Murphy asked for leniency.)

“OK, maybe it’s cheating to pick him, but hey! I’m the new guy here. Everyone is new to me. So I’ll go with him and Landen Roupp. Landen’s another one for me. First bullpen, first 15 pitches, I’m like, ‘OK, this dude has some stuff to compete with.’ You see so much good stuff. It’s more how he handles himself and how he uses his pitches.”

What pitch has stood out?

“Kyle’s fastball. I mean, it’s insanely good. His commitment to it and his ability to locate up in the zone is special. To have a pitch like that in your back pocket as a starter is always nice to lean on. It’s coming at you from a low slot coupled with a high target. It creates that ‘elevator ball’ for him. It’s super hard as a hitter to get on plane with that pitch. And then you have to prepare for the pitches at the bottom — the slider and changeup. That arsenal is super special. The slider especially he’s throwing really well right now. He’ll find ways to work on the action and deaden that changeup to get a little more action on it. That can be such a hard pitch for guys to conquer but the slider looks great.”

Who has stood out?

“I’m sure you’ve heard about Roupp? All the guys are talking about him. I want to see Roupp, I want to see (Carson) Whisenhunt. Those guys want to compete. That’s all that matters. They’re licking their chops to get some major-league hitters out. Roupp’s got good stuff. I’ve talked to him and the mentality is there. You can feel his confidence and that’s important when you’re on that island all by yourself. I like Birdsong, too. He’s a great kid, really receptive. I’ve enjoyed working with him in the bullpen. There’s a lot more but those are the names that stick out to me.”

(Note: Whisenhunt also has been brought along slowly because of last year’s season-ending left elbow sprain. He’s scheduled to throw live batting practice for the first time on Thursday.)

What pitch has stood out?

“That downer curveball or slider you see from (Carson) Seymour. It’s 90 mph and he uses it off a slider-ish pitch. But it’s like a super hard curveball. It’s a pitch shape you don’t see a lot. Yeah. I think he’ll be throwing a lot more of those.”

Assistant pitching coach J.P. Martinez

Who has stood out?

“Mason Black has really stood out to me. His first outing was OK but I feel like he found another gear in his three-inning outing the other day. I’ve really been impressed with not only his shapes but his mound presence, his competitiveness and his ability to execute. I’m really excited to see what Mason can do for us. One thing that pops up for a starter like him who has a wide, five-pitch mix is just when to throw what. I feel his approach has really streamlined and we’re starting to see that show up in his in-game performance. Both his fastballs stand out. His sinker is really good but I’ve been really impressed with his ability to command his four-seam. You don’t often get that with a pitcher with his experience. And it’s like the thing is in an elevator. It keeps going and going. It’s equal parts approach angle and vert. It’s a pretty good contrast between those two fastballs down and up.”

What pitch has stood out?

“I would say Carson Seymour’s breaking ball. He’s got two. He’s calling it a cutter but it’s more like a downer curveball, like Luke Jackson’s big breaking ball but hard, 87-88 mph. He’s got a slider too but the grip is different where it gets a little more horizontal movement. I’m pretty impressed with that and I look forward to seeing him contributing this year.”

Who has stood out?

“Landen Roupp would be the guy. First it’s strike-throwing ability. Then it’s how well the ball’s moving. The curveball and two-seam are 1-A and 1-B with him. He can pick either one any time he wants. I’ll give you another one: Carson Whisenhunt. His command with the fastball and his changeup have been very good. Hopefully we get an opportunity to see him sooner rather than later.”

What pitch has stood out?

“Let’s go with Whisenhunt’s changeup. It’s really good. It’s the miles-per-hour difference from his fastball, it’s his command of it. He throws it to both sides of the plate. He can throw it exactly like his fastball. The deception behind it is tremendous.”

Pitching coach Bryan Price

Who has stood out?

“Can I list the whole group? I’m really impressed by the arm prep. These guys came in ready to compete. But when you see Birdsong throw, it’s impressive just with the height and the velocity and how he’s spinning the ball over the plate. He’s been impressive in many ways. He seems to be a very mature guy. And Sanchez has been electric. There’s a maturity level. He doesn’t seem to get flustered, throwing in the bullpens and drill work and in games, he’s confident with everything. He asks really good questions and has a really good feel for what he wants to do. And Landen Roupp’s body of work, when you watch how he repeats his delivery and repeats pitch quality is what stands out. It’s the full package. You appreciate each pitch individually, but the entirety of the package is what’s special. We haven’t even let him loose on the Cactus League and he’s already made an impression on the young guys and the veterans here.”

What pitch has stood out?

“(Long pause) Wow. You could say Sanchez’s changeup and add in Erik Miller’s changeup. They’re lefties and they both back it with 95-plus velocity and are able to throw it with very similar arm action. So it’s a hard pitch to see. Changeup can be a separator just because hitters can’t see the change of hand position quite like you can on a breaking ball. It’s a special combination of power and change of speed.”

Special assistant Dave Righetti

Who has stood out?

“Check out Spencer Bivens and let me know what you think.”

(Note: Bivens wasn’t in major-league camp when Righetti offered up his name on Monday. So Righetti’s response threw me for a loop. On Tuesday, the Giants announced that Bivens, who has one of the most amazing backstories you could ever hope to read from an aspiring big leaguer, was added as a non-roster invitee. He’d been in Scottsdale as part of a minor-league minicamp of players tasked with backfilling exhibition games but he competed so well that the coaches decided to elevate him.)

What pitch has stood out?

“Just his poise and command. Spring can be tough because a lot of your younger guys are still throwers and they’re trying to hit the middle of the plate. Spencer is a little ahead of that. I knew he’d come over (for exhibitions), but I didn’t know he’d stay. That’s pretty cool. It’s kind of old school. If you’re good, you can’t hide forever.”

(A little more on Bivens: The 29-year-old right-hander received a wave of hugs and handshakes upon setting down his equipment bag at a locker in the Scottsdale Stadium clubhouse. He reflected on all the years he deferred his baseball dreams and made ends meet by taking odd jobs — beer distribution, snow removal, painting and hanging drywall — before committing himself full-time four years ago to playing independent ball.

“In the ’21-22 offseason I went all in and bet on myself and did a throwing program through Tread Athletics and that was huge for me,” Bivens said. “I was a starter and threw curve/four-seam but it wasn’t my natural arm slot. So I totally committed to sinker and sweeper. I guess they just saw what I’ve been doing. It’s been a long road but I’m here now. It’s huge to have the last four years pay off.”)

Bonus panelist: Logan Webb

Who has stood out?

“I’d go Mason (Black). The two times I’ve watched him, you could tell he was a little nervous in the first inning, a little sped up, and after that he’s been nails. It’s an electric fastball and it’s a lot of fun to watch him work. He’s an intense guy on the mound and that’s what I love to watch.”

What pitch has stood out?

“Landen Roupp’s sinker is pretty impressive. The curveball too, but I think his sinker is amazing. It’s just heavy. Everything he throws is heavy. I played catch with him one day and it’s a heavy ball. Every bullpen he’s thrown has been turning heads. I think he’s facing hitters soon, right?”

Yep. The Dodgers on Thursday.

“Well, welcome to it,” Webb said with a laugh.

If Logan Webb is praising your two-seamer, then you’re beginning from a good place.

(Top photo of Mason Black: Ross D. Franklin / Associated Press)

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