An extremely parsimonious rotation that turns winnable games over to a solid bullpen has been the hallmark of a Giants franchise that seemed to move from strength to strength without much of a hitch. But the status quo is rarely there for very long in baseball and things are changing by the bay. Do the Giants still have the horses in their rotation to make up for a lineup that won’t win many shootouts?
Waiting in the Wings
The disclaimer we ran last week at the top of the page may have said otherwise, but barring an injury in camp, this rotation is as set in stone as they come. Heck, Cain has already been named the team’s opening day starter!
Just because the names are fixed doesn’t mean the outcome will be, however. All five starters made 30 or more starts last year and combined for 12.3 WAR, the 16th highest mark in baseball. In 2011, four of the same crew – all but the injured Zito – made 28 or more starts. Despite suffering through 19 starts from Jonathan Sanchez, the team’s starters combined for 16.4 WAR, the sixth best total that season.
As much as Zito was a pleasant surprise last year, the big unknown for the Giants is actually Lincecum, who has quietly been performing worse and worse since 2009. Granted, when the peak is 8 WAR, a little regression isn’t going to be a matter of life and death, but when the regression continues down below 2 WAR for a pitcher with multiple Cy Young awards to his name, that’s a serious issue. Lincecum’s mechanics have always been unusual – his back is notably different from most other pitchers – and while this has always been part of his allure, it’s also making it a little difficult to tell if an injury is contributing to his decline. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit for him to miss time with a lower back strain or an oblique issue, but he made 33 starts last year, so if anything is amiss, it isn’t bad enough to cause him to miss time and that’s somewhat unusual.
About a month ago, Jeff Zimmerman did a solid analysis of what Lincecum needs to do to get back to even the 4-5 WAR he was at in 2010 and 2011, and it’s hardly too much to ask for a pitcher of his caliber. If he can do it, the Giants should be able to compete well with the Dodgers, even if the Dodgers are stronger at the top of the rotation.
But what if he can’t? What if either his back gives out on him or the Giants decide that he’s simply more valuable as a premier set-up man than as a middling starter? Sure it seems unlikely now, but how many bad starts will the Giants give him before they start pondering their options? The answer is actually probably a fairly large number, because unlike the Giants of the past, the current farm system is relatively bare.
For a number of years, the Giants’ front office seemed to have a magic hat from which they could simply pull as many pitchers as they needed. First, out of the minor leagues, came Noah Lowry, then Cain, then Lincecum. Zito joined the squad via free agency. Bumgarner was brought up from the minors and Vogelsong was brought home from a sojourn in Japan.
Zach Wheeler should have been the next in line, but he was sent to New York for the right to flirt with Carlos Beltran. Eric Surkamp might have been an adequate fill-in, but midseason Tommy John surgery last season will hold him out for at least the first half of this season as well. The very presence of Bonser as anything but a satirical add-in should indicate just how thin the Giants’ options are. Now, it’s entirely possible that they’ll never need to tap into that depth – they certainly didn’t last year – but with the questions surrounding Lincecum as well as Vogelsong and Zito’s advancing age, it’s a question in a way that it really hasn’t been in the last few seasons.
The Giants have far too much entrenched talent for the rotation to be an actual position of concern for them, especially when their lineup has a few holes in it and little depth with which to fill them, but the days of the rotation being completely set-and-forget are gone.