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The wild-card option for Giants closer after his breakout season

Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Looking back at the 2019 Giants, with an eye toward the future. Previously: Trevor GottEvan Longoria, Joey Rickard, Donovan Solano, Kevin Pillar, Alex Dickerson, Fernando Abad, Stephen Vogt, Madison Bumgarner, Will Smith, Pablo Sandoval.

It was in the 13th inning of a game that did not matter much that the Giants’ hopes were realized: Sam Coonrod’s stuff plays.

In the righty’s fifth career outing, turned to against the Cubs on July 23 because the Giants didn’t have much else left in the bullpen, he entered with the task of retiring stars Javy Baez, Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo to preserve a game that wouldn’t end.

A diet of mostly hard fastballs and a nasty curveball put away Baez. Three pitches to Bryant — the final one clocked at 99 mph — sent one of the best hitters in baseball back to the dugout. Rizzo meekly grounded out on a changeup. Pablo Sandoval would homer in the bottom of the inning, giving Coonrod his first ever and well-deserved major league win.

A 2014 fifth-round pick, Coonrod arrived in 2019, one of the intriguing pieces who first allowed the Giants to turn over their bullpen at the trade deadline and next gave the team confidence enough that it could let Will Smith walk in free agency.

Now the Illinois native stands as a wild card to become the Giants’ next closer, in the mix with fellow young pitchers Jandel Gustave, Trevor Gott and Tyler Rogers to get back-end roles alongside Tony Watson. The Giants still will have free-agency work to do, but Farhan Zaidi has shown a willingness to let the bullpen build itself, rather than spend a lot of money on that unit. Even if San Francisco does bring in a veteran or two in a poor market, Coonrod stands to be in position for high-leverage 2020 situations.

Coonrod, who came up as a starter but has only been used in relief since 2017 Tommy John surgery, was a solid reliever for most of last season after struggling with Triple-A Sacramento (6.96 ERA in 32 1/3 innings), another example of how wild the PCL was. Using a high-octane fastball that has some sink and a terrific curveball that comes in more than 10 mph slower than his fastball, he got both righties and lefties out last season. Though, curiously, it didn’t translate to many strikeouts: 20 in 27 2/3 innings, a small number for a pitcher with Coonrod’s stuff.

His 50 percent groundball percentage helps somewhat explain it, the fastball inducing more grounders than swings and misses. It will be helpful as the Giants bring the Oracle Park fences in.

His numbers got skewed down the stretch, his ERA rising from 2.49 on Sept. 7 to 3.58 to close the season, surrendering five runs in six late-September innings. It’s possible he was worn down, having thrown just 11 2/3 innings in 2018 after surgery. His first complete year back, though, established himself as a major league pitcher.

The Giants don’t know how many major league pitchers they have in their bullpen — spring training will be one big tryout, with as many as 17 pitchers on the 40-man roster who could start the season out of relief — but Coonrod proved he’s a piece worth keeping.


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