Giants’ Rotation Is Full of Question Marks

Pitchers and catchers reported to spring training this past Friday, thus putting an end to our long national nightmare. Baseball season is officially here! Finally, our sanity can be restored and we can shake free from the bonds of our latest totally involuntary bout of baseball cold turkey. I don’t know about you, but I believe “pitchers and catchers report” are the four sweetest words in the English dictionary.

Members of the Giants pitching staff took turns tossing bullpen sessions this weekend. As with every spring, optimism is in the air, and the team needs a fresh injection of it after the performance of the starting pitchers last season. The major reason the team sputtered and lost 86 games a year after winning it all was because their starting rotation was largely a flaming disaster. The team ERA of 4.00 doesn’t seem horrible at face value, but remember that the Giants call AT&T Park, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, their home. Taking that into account, things start to look a whole lot uglier. The team’s adjusted ERA (or ERA+) was a lowly 84 (or, sixteen percent worse than league average). That figure was…wait for it…good for absolute worst in the majors. That’s right, by that statistic, the Giants had the worst pitching in all of baseball last year. Whether or not you choose to accept that figure, it’s undeniable that the team’s pitching flat out stunk.

Of the six Giants pitchers who made ten or more starts last year, only two finished with ERAs over the league average. One of those pitchers was Chad Gaudin, a spot starter whose 3.53 ERA as a starter is one he probably couldn’t replicate in a million years, and he left as a free agent, anyway. Matt Cain, the team’s nominal ace, struggled through an off year, but after him the Giants had three starters who fell below the 80 ERA+ threshold, two of whom couldn’t even break 60.

Naturally, one would assume a major overhaul would be in order coming off such a miserable collective performance, but that assumption would be very, very wrong. Indeed, the Giants are returning four of the five starters from their rotation last year, and appear to be confident that the sub-subpar pitching from 2013 was simply an aberration. Barry Zito, who flamed out in the last year of his seven-year contract, is gone. In his place steps another former A’s All-Star, Tim Hudson, who is hoping to be fully recovered from a horrific ankle injury suffered last July. Hudson will join familiar faces Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Ryan Vogelsong to round out the 2014 rotation. It’s a group of big names but even bigger question marks.

Bumgarner likely usurped Cain last season as the team’s ace. Still just 24 (as hard as that is to comprehend), MadBum had his best season as a major leaguer last year and he appears to only be getting better. Combining a tricky delivery with very good control, Bumgarner posted his best ERA and strikeout rate as a big leaguer, and was truly the only consistently reliable starter the team had. In 2011 and 2012, Bumgarner appeared to suffer fatigue down the stretch, but that didn’t seem to be an issue last season. He’s the closest thing to a sure bet that the Giants have, a true workhorse and number one starter, and there’s no reason he can’t offer a consistent challenge to Clayton Kershaw for Cy Young supremacy for the next few years.

Cain’s crummy season (easily the worst of his career) was really more of a crummy two months. He was horrible in April (6.49 ERA) and July (8.10), but was his usual self in the other four months. For whatever reason, Cain, who has traditionally been incredibly stingy about giving up home runs, suddenly started giving up gopher balls left and right, including nine in April alone. By comparison, he gave up nine all season in 2011. Cain put up a 2.36 ERA in the second half and got the home runs under control, so his poor first half was probably just a fluke. Name any good, durable pitcher and you can usually find at least one bad outlier year on their resume (like, say, Tom Glavine’s 2003 season). Still, Giants fans live with the constant, unspoken fear that Cain’s right arm might some day wear down after years of 200-plus innings (he averaged 217 innings per season from 2007 to 2012, not including the postseason).

It’s painful to write, but at this point Giants fans simply have very low expectations for Tim Lincecum. The former two-time Cy Young winner was better in 2013 than he was in his disastrous 2012, but that’s like pointing out that M. Night Shyamalan’s latest travesty was better than The Last Airbender. It was still unpleasant to watch. Lincecum got his control back to its previous level (for the most part) last year and showed flashes of his old self, namely when he no-hit the Padres in July. His velocity was still down, though, and he posted a career-worst strikeout rate. He lowered his ERA almost a run, but it was still good for just a 76 ERA+, and he’s developed a sudden penchant for giving up home runs. The 2008-2011 Tim Lincecum we all loved so dearly is probably gone forever, but all is not lost. If Lincecum keeps his walk rate in order and throws another 200 innings while breaking the league average barrier, the Giants will have to be overjoyed at their (somewhat questionable) $35 million investment.

The only big concern with Tim Hudson is how well he’ll recover from the gruesome ankle injury that brought his 2013 to a premature end. Early returns seem to indicate that the answer is: just fine. Hudson reported no discomfort after tossing a bullpen session this weekend, and it appears he’ll be good to go when the season starts. The Giants will be understandably cautious with his workload, but Hudson’s perennial ability to avoid giving up walks and home runs should only be aided further by pitching at AT&T Park. In an offseason starting pitching market that bordered on the loony (three years for Phil Hughes?!), the Giants nabbing Hudson for a cool $23 million for two years might turn into one of the steals of the winter.

Finally, the Giants re-signed Ryan Vogelsong after initially declining his 2014 option, and he’s the obvious favorite to win the fifth starter gig. Vogey suffered through a truly horrendous season that was shortened when he broke his finger trying to bunt in May. It’d be easy to blame his poor performance on the injury, or call it a fluke, but here are some simple facts. He was terrible before the injury, and even though he was better upon his return in August, he still wasn’t any great shakes. He’ll be 36 this year and his peripheral numbers all went 100 mph the wrong way in 2013. Some in the analyst community have pointed out that in 2011 and 2012 Vogelsong pitched better than his strikeouts, walks, etc. would have indicated. Maybe he’s undergoing simple regression, or maybe last year was all a mirage. The Giants are banking (praying?) on the latter.

Even if the pitchers don’t return to the lofty heights of 2010 and 2011, it’s hard to believe that they’ll be anywhere near as bad as they were last season. Cain seemed to right himself in the second half, while Hudson will almost certainly be leaps and bounds above what Zito devolved into in his last Giants season. Bumgarner is a bona fide ace, but it’s truly anyone’s guess what the team will get out of Lincecum and Vogelsong. It’d be all well and good for those two to start pitching like ’twas 2011 again, but after last year the Giants will be thrilled with league average.

There are a lot of “ifs” here. If Cain and Vogelsong bounce back and Hudson is his usual self after the injury, and Lincecum gets his ERA under four again, they have the makings of a pretty darn good rotation. However, best case “if” scenarios are all Giants fans can hang their hats on right now; as any good baseball fan knows, predicting pitcher performance has left many betting men fashioning new homes out of cardboard boxes. If the Giants have any prayer of hanging with the Dodgers in the NL West this season, most of those “ifs” better come to fruition.