Low-key homegrown influx fuels Bumgarner-less Giants

Fastened to the brick facade that towers over Willie Mays Plaza, the main entry point into AT&T Park, hangs a giant banner of Madison Bumgarner.

For most fans, that’s the most they’ve seen of the injured ace since he took a bow at the home opener and drew one of the loudest applauses on an afternoon when Barry Bonds and Mays himself were also in the building.

When Bumgarner delivers his first pitch of 2018, it will officially mark his 10th season in the major leagues. It will also provide a striking reminder of just how long it’s been since the Giants developed a true franchise-changing player.

This week, the Giants needed only to look out at the diamond to see the impact those type of players make.

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Perennial MVP contender Bryce Harper and the Washington Nationals stopped by for three games before the Giants welcomed the Los Angeles Dodgers, owners of one of baseball’s most prolific farm systems, to China Basin.

The Giants eternal rival has two such transcendent talents on the infield in shortstop Corey Seager and first baseman Cody Bellinger.

Oh, and there’s that Clayton Kershaw guy, who by a fortuitous stroke of scheduling, wasn’t lined up to pitch in the four-game weekend showdown.

“It is strange. Isn’t it?” manager Bruce Bochy marveled.

If the Giants are going to hang on until Bumgarner’s fractured pinky heals and he makes his expected return in early June, the team will have to continue calling on an old building block — homegrown help.

The Giants don’t need a Harper — well, the fanbase can always dream this offseason — or a Seager or a Bellinger.

Right now, the Giants can settle for a Chris Stratton, Mac Williamson and even a Hunter Strickland and Reyes Moronta. Strickland is not technically homegrown, as he was originally a Boston Red Sox draft pick in 2007, but he’s been in the system since 2013.

That quartet makes up the crew of Bochy’s most unlikely contributors of 2018.

Stratton, who has been the Giants most dominant starter this side of Johnny Cueto, actually began his rise last summer, spinning a 2.59 ERA after the All-Star break. The trouble is that nobody seems to remember.

After a recent gem, Stratton had to laugh when he found himself fielding what has become a routine question.

“I feel like y’all ask me every week where my confidence level is,” Stratton said with a smile. “No. I feel great. I feel like we’re mixing up pitches well. Like I said, I think we’ve got a great game plan every week and I think Buster [Posey]’s done a great job so far.”

Entering his weekend start against the Dodgers, Stratton, 27, had strung together 14 consecutive starts allowing three runs of less. His ERA sat at 2.32. Opponents were hitting .178.

“He’s really come [along] quick here,” Bochy said. “We look at last year — his body of work — and then, of course, spring training, when the season started, he’s a complete pitcher. He’s got four pitches that he’s comfortable throwing at any time but he’s got great poise out there too.”

Like Stratton, who was the 20th overall pick, Williamson, a third-round selection, was from the same distant 2012 draft. Over the winter, the 27-year-old adopted the hitting coach and batting stance of Justin Turner, the Dodgers late-blooming star.

Williamson connected on six home runs in 11 Triple-A games before a Hunter Pence thumb sprain provided him a pathway back to AT&T Park. In his first five games, he responded with three more home runs — one of which traveled 464 feet, landing in the seats above Triples Alley.

“I just haven’t seen many balls hit there, even in BP,” Bochy said. “With the wind blowing, that’s impressive. It shows you how strong this guy is. And a big home run, too, a big moment there. But it’s an area where few guys can hit a ball and I think all his teammates were pretty impressed too.”

It was the longest opposite field homer of 2018 and the longest drive by a Giant at AT&T since MLB’s Statcast began tracking in 2015. Williamson has played enough games in right to realize it was no time to flip his bat.

“I hit it pretty well,” Williamson said. “You never know here at AT&T the way the ball plays — especially out there. It’s deep. I hit it well but I ran out of the box because you never know. I wanted to make sure I was up on [third] if it didn’t get out.”

In the bullpen, Strickland, who is finally fulfilling his considerable talent and harnessing his electric fastball, has emerged in the ninth, making it easy to forget about Mark Melancon, the $62-million mulligan. Moronta, plucked out of the Dominican Republic back in 2010, surrendered a single run in his first 11 outings.

In the wake of last year’s 98-loss debacle, lots of fans fired general manager Bobby Evans and executive VP Brian Sabean — the even-year architect — on Twitter. Quietly, it’s the players they acquired during those glory days who are keeping the club in contention.

Karl Buscheck
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Karl Buscheck

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