San Francisco Giants bring back strong locker room presence and veteran arm in Derek Holland

As Derek Holland walked out of the San Francisco Giants’ Sunday worship service on Sept. 29, below the bejeweled cross hanging from his neck, below the cutoff shirt, was a waist-down costume that made the 31-year old left-hander look like he was riding on the shoulders of a leprechaun.

It had been nearly a full month since his Michigan Wolverines had lost to Jeff Samardzija’s Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and he’d lost a bet to injured Giants right-hander Jeff Samardzija, a former Notre Dame receiver. So, two days before the end of an 89-loss season, Holland provided a bit of levity, drawing smiles, laughs and shaking heads from his teammates.

Beyond his staff-leading 171 1/3 innings on the mound, it was that type of clubhouse presence — one which prompted him to him oil up and strip down for a faux wrestling promo to get Brandon Belt into the All-Star Game — that proved invaluable for San Francisco last season. It’s just one of the many reasons new president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi knew that bringing Holland back would be one of his top priorities once his offseason began, a box he checked when re-signing the 32-year old left-hander to a one-year contract on Monday.

“As far as Derek goes, he was always high on our list,” Zaidi said. “I had a chance to get info from different people in the organization, from Boch and his staff to the people in the front office, everybody spoke so highly of Derek and the job he did for us last year.”

The deal will pay Holland $6.5 million in 2019, with a club option for 2020 (with a $500k buyout). The option year’s base salary would increase to $7 million if Holland makes 24 starts, $7.5 million if he makes 28 starts and $8.5 million if he makes 32 starts.

Holland earned just $2 million last season after signing a minor league deal and making the club out of spring training, but he proved to be arguably San Francisco’s most cost-effective signing. Holland led the Giants in innings, ERA (3.57), strikeouts (171 1/3) and games started (30). He was worth 2.1 WAR, behind only rookie sensation Dereck Rodriguez and Madison Bumgarner (2.4).

“We had to move him to the bullpen, he was all-in on that. He’d start, and the next day, say he was good to go,” Bochy said. “He is so popular in that clubhouse, too. He has some intangibles that we really like, too, to go along with the body of work that he gave us, but the stuff, here’s a guy throwing in the 90s still, he’s a four-pitch guy, he’s comfortable getting back in the count with any pitch, and to me, he’s got better as a pitcher, and this has been a good year for him.”

His production — especially after a disastrous year with the Chicago White Sox — helped the Giants weather injuries to Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Samardzija.

In the second half, Holland posted a 2.83 ERA, and over six starts from Aug. 15 to Sept. 12, he posted a 1.59 ERA and 34 strikeouts over 34 innings, where opponents hit .197 against him.

If he can give San Francisco that kind of production in 2019 — a year that, by all accounts, will likely be a rebuilding one for the Giants — he’ll spare the club’s young starters (Rodriguez, Andrew Suarez and others who the Giants may yet pursue) precious innings. Hence the innings incentives.

The Giants are far from done this offseason. Zaidi mentioned multiple times in a teleconference with reporters on Monday that there were things in the works. He still wants to add more experience in the outfield to supplement youngsters like Steven Duggar, Chris Shaw and Mac Williamson, and another three or more  starters.

“I still expect us to be active this month, leading into spring training,” Zaidi said. “You could see activity continuing even once we get to camp. There’s still obviously quite a few free agents out there, quite a few guys who could help this team, talking through different trade scenarios. I expect us to continue to be active.”

The fact that Holland both started and relieved last season was incentive for Zaidi, who employed Kenta Maeda and Ross Stripling out of the bullpen late in the season and in the postseason with the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. That said, even though the club is going to be more creative with starting — possibly using an opener at times — Zaidi still views Holland as a straight-up starter.

“It’s a fair question in this day and age, but our intent — our plan — is to use Derek every fifth day as a starter, and hopefully, he can match or exceed his workload from last season,” Zaidi said.

Holland — who spent his entire career in the American League before joining San Francisco — still wants to work to improve at everything from his pitching to hitting to bunting.

“Coming to the National league from the American League, there’s a lot more that I need to work on,” Holland said. “Obviously, Boch’ was impressed with how good my swings were, but I still want to show these guys that you’ve got to improve on everything, no matter what.”

Manager Bruce Bochy was a bit skeptical about Holland’s swing, though he was very bullish on Holland’s value to the Giants’ young starters like Rodriguez and Suarez.

“You look at the injuries that we had to deal with, providing the leadership that Derek does, and what a great teammate,” Bochy said. “He’s always talking to those guys. You see him during the games, in the dugout, even wanting to pinch-run. I don’t know why he mentioned hitting.”

Between his myriad impressions (including spot-on tributes to Kermit the Frog and Harry Carray), oiling up his dad bod and drawing Sharpie abs on himself to cut a faux wrestling promo to get Brandon Belt to the All-Star Game, wearing clever graphic t-shirts to every postgame interview or just needing out over superhero swag, Holland was the consummate class clown last season, but also a valued teammate. He even bought Rodriguez a prop from a Batman movie.

“He’s talking to those guys, and as a young player, you deal with the ups and downs,” Bochy said. “He’s the veteran that’s right there to help you out, and also for them to watch how he works, he prepares and he takes care of himself, the conditioning, all those things. It’s really important to have that there.”

Holland, who had his locker situated near Suarez and caddy-corner from Rodriguez, learned the value of being a veteran leader in his early years with the Texas Rangers.

“Eddie Guardado and Darren Oliver, those two guys showed me so much about the game and how to carry yourself,” Holland said. “You’re supposed to be who you are, and show those younger guys but also do your job when it comes to working and doing those more important things.”

The Rangers were among several teams that made a run at Holland this offseason, but those talks petered out around Christmas. At the same time, talks with San Francisco heated up. That was fine by Holland, who expressed a desire late in the season to return in 2019. Then, the Giants made a change at the top, firing general manager Bobby Evans and hiring Zaidi.

“I was definitely nervous,” Holland said. “When things happen, that’s just kind of the way things go, and I can’t control those things.I knew that there was an agreement of trying to get me back. It was just trying to get on the same page, which, we worked that out … I was definitely excited to have the opportunity to come back and be a Giant again. That’s the most important thing.”

“We’ve been in touch with his representation throughout the offseason, and like Derek, I’m really excited that we figured out a way to bring him back,” Zaidi said. “From a front office standpoint, and I think from Boch’s standpoint, as well, you want players that want to be in your organization.”

The Giants took a chance on Holland after he posted the worst ERA of his career, a 6.20, in 26 starts with the Chicago White Sox in 2016, after which he was released with a month left in the regular season.

“For me, it was an easy decision to come back, after everything,” Holland said. “These guys helped me, basically, as I look at it, resurrect my career.”

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