The San Francisco Giants have signed Great Britain pitcher Michael Roth to a minor league contract. He is expected to start next season in the starting rotation at AAA Sacramento. However, with an invitation to Spring Training, and pitching staff in flux, Roth is in the frame for a place on the Major League roster.
Left-hander Roth is the ace of the GB staff
Roth, 26, is already a stalwart of the GB team, having represented them at the last two World Baseball Classic Qualifiers. In the most recent tournament in New York, he pitched six innings of one-run ball against the eventual tournament winners, Israel [see video, below].
Roth made his name for the South Carolina Gamecocks in the College World Series (CWS), leading them to back-to-back titles in 2010 and 2011. He holds a 4-0 record with a 1.49 ERA in five CWS starts. He made his Major League debut for the Los Angeles Angels in 2012 — just 10 months after he was drafted.
Roth pitching for AAA Round Rock. Credit: Jamie Harms
The Giants won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014, and boast one of the most formidable starting rotations in the major leagues, fronted by the elite Madison Bumgarner and Johnny Cueto. Jeff Samaardzija and Matt Moore provide a solid 3-4 punch, but the decline of veterans Matt Cain and Jake Peavy means the final spot in the rotation is there for the taking.
“I wanted to be able to go into Spring Training to compete for a spot on a Big League roster," Roth, who received the call from Giants' GM Bobby Evans, said.
"I think the Giants have that opportunity.
“If I throw the ball well but I’m not chosen to start, there are bullpen slots open as well. I think I provide some versatility. Ultimately, I'm looking forward to competing."
Following the departure of veterans Sergio Romo, Santiago Casilla and Javier Lopez, extensive retooling of the Giants' relief corps is planned. This includes a slot for a left-handed specialist to replace Lopez, although the club already have three southpaw relievers in Will Smith, Josh Osich and Steven Okert — and a fourth if sophomore Ty Blach does not make the rotation. From the remaining pool of candidates, Roth has the edge both in experience (36 innings in the bigs, and 600 overall) and form. At AAA Round Rock in 2016, he posted a 2.97 ERA in 145 innings — the second best mark in the Pacific Coast League — enough to make the All-Star team.
Roth has appeared in three seasons in the Majors: With the Los Angeles Angels in 2013 and 2014, before joining the Texas Rangers via Cleveland. A dominant first half in 2016 culminated in late June, when he took a no-hitter into the 8th inning. Two weeks later, he had been called up to face the best offense in baseball — the Boston Redsox.
Roth has five pitches at his disposal. His bread and butter is a sinking fastball that tops out in the high 80s (86-90mph). This he compliments with a cut fastball (deployed most effectively against other left-handers), a curve, a slider and a changeup (80-83mph). He adds deception and keeps hitters off balance by varying his arm slot, dropping below is usual three-quarters delivery. In college, scouts and opposing coaches remarked that his off-speed pitch was his most potent weapon.
"I still use my changeup a good bit," Roth said. "[But] I've found out that in order for it to be most effective, I need to set it up using my sinker and cutter. If I try to live off of my change, it's probably not my best day."
"[His changeup] has late action," a Major League scout told ESPN in 2012.
"Hitters try to do too much with it and pull it. If he's hitting spots [with his fastball] and the change is going, I don't think he thinks he can be beat."
The change in approach has paid dividends. Roth’s command in the minors has improved for five successive seasons, with his walks per 9 innings dropping from 4.5 to 2.6, and his strikeout to walk ratio (K/BB) rising from 1.33 to 2.24 since 2013. He also posted career lows in home runs per nine (0.6) and WHIP (1.225) in 2016. Insiders suggest this also relates to his being more aggressive with hitters and, as his former coach at Round Rock says, ‘trusting his stuff’.
Roth said he had spent the off-season correcting any mobility issues that may have crept up over the course of the season. More recently, he has begun strengthening and conditioning.
"I will start throwing again this coming Monday," he added. "Command of all of my pitches is vitally important. I want to continue to fine tune my curveball and cutter. I really made some strides with them last year.
"I think what's also helped is finding a good arm slot that allowed me to have the natural whip of my arm in all of my pitches. It helped my command and the sharpness of every pitch."
Roth’s final performance of the season provided emphatic evidence of this progress. Pitching in the World Baseball Classic Qualifier, Roth methodically mowed down a formidable Israel lineup, exhibiting poise, patience and command of all his pitches.
He threw 23 of 30 first pitches for strikes, and issued no walks. But for a pitch count limit, there is little doubt he would have gone the distance.
Roth has appeared in three Big League seaasons
And now — or rather next spring — he’ll get the chance to go at least one step further with San Francisco.
Follow Michael on Twitter at @mtroth29