The San Francisco Giants have long since been characterized as a team built on pitching and defense.
The franchise that drafted and developed stars like Bumgarner, Cain and Lincecum earned the designation of a pitching-first team under the watchful eyes of former pitching coach Dave Righetti and former bullpen coach Mark Gardner. But the 2017 Giants failed to live up to that billing as the starting staff allowed 488 earned runs, sixth worst in the majors.
Then the team did something curious during the offseason: the Giants decided to give two rotation spots to a pair of 27-year-olds with less than a year-and-a-half of combined service time.
Heading into Spring Training, the fourth and fifth rotation spots, behind Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija, have yet to be spoken for, according to manager Bruce Bochy. But Ty Blach and Chris Stratton are almost assuredly the front-runners.
Blach and Stratton both impressed Bochy and the Giants brass with their performance in 2017.
Blach took Bumgarner’s rotation spot after he was sidelined by injury, making 24 starts with a 4.81 ERA. Pedestrian ERA notwithstanding, Blach pitched strongly at times, posting quality starts against playoff teams like the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers and Cleveland Indians, and tossing a shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies. Stratton made nine starts in August and September, turning heads with a pair of 10-strikeout performances against the Washington Nationals and Arizona Diamondbacks — also postseason qualifiers. Bochy acknowledged the pair at FanFest when asked about the competition at the back-end of the rotation:
“When I look at Blach and what he did last year when Bumgarner went down, I think he has shown he’s a major-league pitcher. Stratton, you know, the noise that he made when he came up. It’s great to have these guys that have gotten some major league time so it takes a little bit of that unknown factor away for them and for us. We’ve gotten a good look at them.”
Behind Blach and Stratton are top prospect Tyler Beede and Andrew Suarez, whom the club is high on after posting a 3.30 ERA in 155-2/3 innings across double-A and triple-A in 2017. While they would need a strong spring to break camp with the Giants, Beede and Suarez should both see time in the majors in 2018, whether in the rotation or out of the bullpen.
The top of the rotation is not without questions of its own, though.
Bumgarner made only 17 starts last season after a dirt bike accident in mid-April earned him a separated shoulder and two months on the disabled list. Much ink was spilled between 2014 and 2015 about how Bumgarner would hold up after throwing 270 combined innings between the 2014 regular season and postseason. Bumgarner, to his credit, made 32 starts the next season, posted a 2.93 earned run average and finished sixth in Cy Young Award voting.
Barring another failed X-Games audition, 200-plus innings of a healthy and effective Bumgarner would put the Giants in a much better place than they were last season.
Cueto’s 2017 started later than he — or the Giants, for that matter — had planned. While his teammates reported to Scottsdale, Ariz. in February, Cueto stayed in the Dominican Republic to care for his ailing father and didn’t make his Spring Training debut until mid-March. The missed training time, recurring blister issues and a forearm strain compounded Cueto’s 2017 into his worst season since 2009, when a 23-year-old Cueto posted a 4.41 ERA in 30 starts for the Reds.
Blister issues remain a league-wide concern after players, coaches and analysts suspected something was different with the baseballs used in-game last season. And Cueto, who turns 32 on Thursday, doesn’t necessarily have to evade them because the calendar turned over. The Giants are betting on a normal offseason and Cactus League being a boon for Cueto, who averaged a 2.86 ERA between 2010 and 2016.
Samardzija was the only Giant to surpass 200 innings pitched in 2017.
He posted a big league-best walk rate and his best strikeout percentage since 2012. His hits and home runs allowed per nine weren’t elite but stayed in line with his career averages. Knowing that, his 4.42 ERA is something of an unexpected blemish. However, Samardzija had the 11th-highest difference in the majors between his ERA and fielding-independent pitching (FIP), which attempts to measure a pitcher’s effectiveness based on what he can control, namely home runs, walks, hit-by-pitches and strikeouts.
Oddly enough, the majors’ 10th largest ERA-FIP differential belonged to Matt Moore, whom the Giants dealt to the Texas Rangers in December for a pair of minor-league pitchers in an attempt to keep the Giants’ payroll under the $197 million luxury tax threshold.
Samardzija’s ERA-FIP differential is likely due in large part to the Giants’ National League-worst outfield defense since he allowed a fly-ball rate of 36.5 percent and if the team’s defense is better in 2018, Samardzija is likely to be better as well.
No one would have blamed the Giants should they have signed a free agent starter like Alex Cobb or Lance Lynn to better fill out the rotation — it is worth mentioning that both remain available in free agency.
As is, San Francisco is gambling on its established veterans pitching better than they did in 2017 and on a young farm hand or two to seize a starting job before the end of March — and perhaps catch lighting in a bottle over the summer. It’s not the worst plan and if some things break the right way, the Giants could have one of the NL’s better starting staffs in 2018.