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First Giants’ cuts whittle competition in the bullpen

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.–The Giants didn’t shock the baseball world after Monday’s 6-5 win over the A’s, but they did provide early hints as to what their Opening Day roster will look like after announcing their first cuts of the spring.
Of the 13 players optioned or reassigned to Minor League camp, 10 were pitchers including four who possess at least one inning of Major League experience.
Based on their spring performances, the Giants’ decision to option left-handed reliever Steven Okert and former Cubs’ prospect Pierce Johnson provided two mild surprises.
Okert boasts two seasons of experience with the big league club and posted a 1.93 ERA while battling for a left-handed specialist role. Johnson ranked among the Giants’ sharpest relievers, making six Cactus League appearances and logging five innings while allowing just one hit and no runs.
With Okert heading to Minor League camp, lefties Josh Osich and non-roster invitee Derek Holland will likely compete for the 25-man roster spot expected to remain vacant until southpaw Will Smith returns from Tommy John surgery.
The Giants haven’t decided whether they’ll keep 12 or 13 pitchers on their Opening Day roster, but aside from free agent signee Tony Watson, they’ll likely save a place for at least one other left-handed relief pitcher. Holland is still battling for a role as a starter or reliever, but he and Ty Blach are both capable of locking down a job as a left-handed long man if neither wins out in the competition for spots at the back end of the club’s rotation.
Gunning for the final bullpen spot, Johnson quickly evolved into one of the surprise standouts in Giants’ camp, logging five innings over six appearances and allowing just one hit and no runs.
The Missouri State product was a top prospect in the Cubs’ farm system before the organization asked him to overhaul his mechanics for precautionary reasons in 2016.
“When you’ve been throwing the same way for 20-something years and changing that, it’s kind of a drastic change,” Johnson said. “I never really felt comfortable on the mound and that messed with my head a lot.”
After posting a 6.14 ERA with the Triple-A Iowa Cubs in 2016, Johnson rebounded with a stronger campaign in his first full season as a reliever last year before San Francisco claimed him on waivers in September.
The Giants believe Johnson has the talent to develop into a late-inning bullpen presence, and he’ll likely start the season with Triple-A Sacramento.
“I think it helped because I can go out there and throw the kitchen sink instead of trying to establish yourself early and try to last seven innings,” Johnson said of relieving. “I think going to the bullpen helped my mechanics, but it was a mental and physical battle.”
Johnson felt comfortable in a Cubs’ system loaded with top prospects who have ascended to the Major Leagues, as he was infielder Addison Russell’s first roommate and also lived with reliever Carl Edwards, Jr.
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However, Johnson is also familiar with several Giants’ pitchers, having competed against Ty Blach in travel ball and in college while also rooming with Monday starter Chris Stratton during a summer playing for the Harwich Mariners in the Cape Cod Baseball League. (Harwich is the same summer league team Brandon Belt and Tim Lincecum played with).
With Johnson and Okert headed to Minor League camp, the Giants have limited the number of pitchers competing for one-to-two open spots in the bullpen.
Watson, closer Mark Melancon and set-up men Hunter Strickland and Sam Dyson are locks for the Opening Day roster, while middle reliever Cory Gearrin is also likely assured of a role. That leaves a spot open for a left-handed until Smith returns, perhaps Osich or Holland, and a job for a right-hander that could go to Derek Law or Rule-5 draft choice Julian Fernandez.
Fernandez has struggled in several of his Cactus League appearances, but he’s also shown flashes of brilliance including a 1.0 inning, two strikeout outing against the Mariners on Thursday in which he was clocked at 99 miles per hour on five straight pitches before he spun off a backdoor 81-mile per hour breaking ball to notch his second punchout.
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The Giants optioned Okert, Johnson, Chase Johnson, Tyler Herb, Reyes Moronta, D.J. Snelten, Aramis Garcia and Miguel Gomez to Minor League camp. Alen Hanson, Jose Flores, Dereck Rodriguez, Tyler Cyr and Madison Younginer were reassigned to the minors.
Third baseman Evan Longoria is expected to return from an ankle injury Tuesday.
Closer Mark Melancon will pitch on two days’ rest for the first time this spring and throw an inning on Wednesday.
Starter Johnny Cueto will pitch in a “B” game at the Giants’ Minor League complex Wednesday to avoid facing the Mariners for the second straight week.

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