As the start of Spring Training draws ever nearer, however slowly it seems, talk around the Hot Stove frequently turns to the Giants and their formidable-seeming starting rotation. No doubt that, statistically, the Orange-and-Black have an impressive row of starters that matches up well with any other team in baseball.
But if you scratch just below the surface you find potential flaws that could become yawning canyons into which the team could stumble, fall and not recover. Here’s my take.
No doubt the ace and lead starter of the crew, Madison “Mad Bum” Bumgarner, is everything he’s cracked up to be…and more. At the age of 27, this guy is just entering his prime and he’s already peeking around the curtain of the Holy of Holies within which reside the Greatest Pitchers of All Time. Bumgarner finished his fourth consecutive season with an earned run average under 3.00 with career highs in innings pitched (226 2/3) and strikeouts (251) last year. There doesn’t appear to be a flaw in this guy.
Number 2 in the rotation, Johnny Cueto was a big surprise to most fans and sportswriters last season. Cueto went 18-5 with a 2.79 ERA, a 1.09 WHIP (walks plus hits per inning pitched) and 198 strikeouts in 219 2/3 innings. He also threw a career-high five complete games. So he should have a great 2017, right? Ah, but the fly in this particular ointment is is age: Cueto is 31 years old and, over the course of his 9-year career (8-1/2 with the Reds), he threw a huge number of innings (1,421 to be exact). How much more his arm has in it is a big question mark. Pitchers hit their strides in the 26-28-year-old time frame and many are washed up by the time they’re 31.
At the third spot in the rotation is another 30-plus-year-old arm, hung on the lanky frame of one Jeff Samardzija, who’s 32. Over his nine-year career, he has thrown just 1,195 innings, more than 200 fewer than Cueto, so his arm probably isn’t quite as tired, but he’s clearly no spring chicken. Both he and Samardzija could go down with age-related injuries any time — or multiple times — this season. In his case, Samardzija would take with him a 2016 record of 12-11 with a 3.81 ERA, a 1.20 WHIP and 167 strikeouts in 203 1/3 innings. Not terribly impressive, but only a bit below par.
The fourth starter, Matt Moore, like Mad Bum is 27 years old and he seems to have an immense talent. Last season’s record doesn’t really tell the whole story because it was his first year back after having Tommy John surgery on his throwing arm. A mid-season acquisition in 2016, Moore wound up with a 4.08 ERA, which is pretty weak for a guy who in 2013 was the AL MVP and Cy Young Award winner. His strikeout-to-walk ratio was a mediocre 2.16 and he showed flashes of poor control. But he doesn’t give up the long ball (0.9 homers per 9 innings last year). I’d say he’s a bit of a gamble. He could go either way, either returning in his prime fully recovered from the surgery and taking off like a rocket or fizzling and crashing into McCovey Cove.
The final spot in the rotation belongs to Matt (OMG!) Cain, he of the 5.64 2016 ERA. (That wasn’t a fluke; remember his 2015 ERA was 5.79!) In nine full seasons with the Giants, Cain has thrown 1,961 innings, so his arm is probably more fatigued than Samardzija’s. Cain is also 32 years old (see above) and he’s not likely to get a lot of support and encouragement from fans unless he explodes out the gate, which is a tough assignment for a fifth starter. If Cain doesn’t cut it in Spring Training, the likely guy to replace him is the young, rocket-armed Ty Blach, who excited fans in the penultimate game of 2016 when he threw an eight-inning shutout at the Dodgers. He only pitched 17 innings but he had an impressive 1.06 ERA and he impressed a lot of folks. (Of course, you have to
take into account a lot of factors: late in the season, first time seeing him throw at you, etc.) Still, the 26-year-old rookie seems ready, and if Cain falters, he could become a player.
So let’s review. The top of the rotation is solid. The next three guys are two tired-out 30-plus-year-olds and a guy coming off Tommy John surgery who wasn’t too impressive. And there’s the once-fabled Matt Cain.
Tell me again why this is one of the best starting rotations in the league?