SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- As established relievers who are guaranteed of season-opening roster spots with the Giants, Jeremy Affeldt, Santiago Casilla, Javier Lopez and Sergio Romo are in the vast minority.
At least 11 other pitchers have a legitimate chance to secure any of three apparent bullpen vacancies, one of which will be reserved for a long reliever who can pitch multiple innings at a time. Though bullpen derbies tend to renew themselves each spring, the average field of candidates is usually smaller.
"It's good competition," said Heath Hembree, a solid contender for one of the two short-relief vacancies. "We're having fun with it. Let's get our innings in and compete with each other."
Once anointed as the Giants' closer of the future, Hembree faces challenges from fellow right-handers Erik Cordier, Jake Dunning, George Kontos, Derek Law and Jean Machi. Jose De Paula and Dan Runzler are the left-handers in the mix. Right-handers Yusmeiro Petit and Kameron Loe and left-hander David Huff fit the long-relief profile.
Handicapping favorites is premature at this juncture. Surprises are bound to occur, in the form of stunning performances or stunting injuries. One unforeseen element already has developed: The electric stuff displayed by De Paula, an unheralded 26-year-old claimed off waivers in November from San Diego. Manager Bruce Bochy called De Paula "the talk around camp," and he wasn't exaggerating. Said Hembree on Thursday, "There are a couple of guys you didn't expect, like De Paula. He's been throwing the ball great."
Though Bochy often has stocked his bullpen with three lefties, he insisted that this is not a requirement for him and maintained that the best arms will win the jobs. That's an extra source of hope for the intriguing cast of right-handers.
Hembree was unscored upon in 7 2/3 innings spanning nine appearances for the Giants late last season.
Cordier threw four 100-mph fastballs in a recent appearance, according to the Giants' velocity readings. But though Cordier has struck out 462 in 573 1/3 Minor League innings, he also has walked 321, which is too high a ratio and may explain why he never has reached the Majors.
Dunning showed promise last year by recording a 2.84 ERA in 29 outings as a Giant.
Kontos won a World Series ring with the Giants in 2012, when he finished the regular season with a 2.47 ERA in 44 appearances. He slumped to a 4.39 ERA in 52 games last year.
Law, not De Paula, began camp as the Giants' would-be phenom following an outstanding 2013 season that included a 12 1/3-inning Arizona Fall League campaign in which he did not allow an earned run.
Machi spent most of last season with the Giants and occasionally looked dominant, posting a 2.38 ERA in 51 games and striking out 51 in 53 innings.
Then again, the velocity that generates this type of ratio has become common. Loe, who has more than six years of Major League service time, made that observation when he considered the Giants' bullpen crowd.
"Every bullpen has four or five guys who throw 95-plus [miles an hour]," said Loe, who's playing for his sixth team. "Everybody's got young, good arms. There's kids throwing 95-plus everywhere now. When I got drafted [in 2002], I was hitting like 92 on a good day. Guys that were throwing like 95, you're like, 'Oh, wow.' That was only 12, 13 years ago. Now it seems like if you're not throwing 93, 94 and above, you're not getting a sniff."
Unless you're a long reliever. Petit, who relies on finesse, entered the spring as the likeliest choice for that role, based on his success as a starter late last season. Sounding confident that Petit will find his groove in the next few weeks, Bochy's not panicking over Petit's 27.00 ERA (seven earned runs in 2 1/3 innings) in two outings.
The Giants acquired Huff from the Yankees in January, believing that he would push Petit. But a shoulder injury has delayed Huff's spring debut.
Loe, who wants to return to starting after serving mostly as a reliever since 2008, has made a pair of two-inning appearances and is due for another multiple-inning outing soon. The non-roster invitee has no illusions of cracking the Giants' starting rotation and appreciated the opportunity he's receiving.
"Obviously they have their guys here [in the rotation], but I'm glad that they're allowing me to be seen as a starter and get stretched out," Loe said.