An Opening Day roster that looked like it had vacancies for two starters in March turned into a proving ground for no fewer than six hopefuls this spring when the Giants top three starters fell to injury.
The group of unexpected starters was whittled down to Derek Holland, Andrew Suárez, Chris Stratton and Dereck Rodríguez by the time Madison Bumgarner was back and the calendar flipped to June. And a couple of weeks ago it appeared likely that one of the rookies in the group would either return to Triple-A or transition to the bullpen with the imminent return of Jeff Samardzija (right shoulder). But that may not be a done deal.
The performances put up by Suárez, Stratton and Rodríguez in recent weeks have been the definition of forcing the hands of decision-makers in the Giants organization.
Ty Blach, who was in the rotation earlier in the spring, floundered in his starts leading up to Bumgarner’s June 5 return, so it was he who the Giants moved to the bullpen, but in Samardzija’s case there’s no similar, obvious choice.
The difference between May and June for the rotation was stark. It combined for a 5.77 ERA in May, allowing 87 earned runs and 24 homers, striking out 98, but in June that ERA shrunk to 2.39, while starters allowed 35 fewer earned runs and half as many homers with 136 strikeouts. Granted, June’s rotation included one variable that May lacked — the return of Bumgarner — but the rookies’ June numbers individually were just as impressive.
Suárez was 2-0 with a 2.62 ERA, Rodríguez went 3-1 with a 3.21 ERA and Stratton, the odd man out relatively speaking, had a 2-2 record with a 3.55 ERA.
Skipper Bruce Bochy appreciates the depth the young rookies have provided:
“We thought going into the season we had more depth than we did last year. … With Suárez, we knew he was knocking on the door, he was close; Rodríguez is the guy that probably surprised us all with how quickly he came up being a converted guy; Stratton, with what he did last year — we felt like we had the arms that could soften the losses of those pitchers.”
And they did soften those losses, but it was inevitable that any chemistry they built up would be disrupted as the guys they were filling in for got healthy.
Samardzija has had an ever-lengthening rehab over the last few weeks. His finish line with Triple-A Sacramento was pushed back twice to extend his outings.
Bochy commented on the issue a day after Samardzija’s third start:
“The [goal is] to get him up five or six times. I think we can cover ourselves a little bit better and just be sure on this one, [to make] sure that we have him to the point where we don’t have to be concerned with how many times he gets up [in a game].”
Building up pitch-count is viewed equally as important as building up inning-count. Samardzija’s first two rehab outings were encouraging. But there was one primary concern — even as the leash on his pitch-count was extended to 90, he didn’t make it past the fourth inning.
Concerns about his truncated outings coupled with the steadiness of the current rotation allowed the team to avoid making any decision. But there will be no six-man rotation, according to Bochy, and the Giants didn’t sign Samardzija to a five-year $90 million contract in 2016 to wear a River Cats uniform.
He finally met the goal of tossing six innings Monday in his fourth rehab appearance, allowing five hits and two runs on solo homers.
So with that he’s likely headed to San Francisco for the upcoming homestand, and his return will prompt the first of two difficult decisions to be made in the near future. But the Giants have been mum on how they plan to get out of this pickle.
“These are things we talk about to the players and of course we’re talking as a staff — [general manager] Bobby [Evans], [VP of baseball operations] Brian [Sabean], everybody. …There’s a few options, to be honest. I don’t want to mention somebody right now I want them to focus on pitching, doing their job and [making] it tough [for us] on this decision. And they’re doing that.”
So for the three rookies on the chopping block, each start is a statement, an argument and a rebuttal. A game of quiet one-upmanship. Stratton lasted just four innings allowing five runs for a no decision against Colorado Thursday. Suárez tossed six innings allowing one run for a win over Arizona Friday. And Rodríguez pitched a 6-1/3 inning shutout, also for a win, Saturday.
Stratton is the weakest link in the last couple revolutions, despite his 8-5 record on the season. But he’ll get a shot at redemption Tuesday in a re-match against Colorado.
The question is whether the Giants want to risk fixing a rotation that ain’t broke and being forced to make a Sophie’s Choice to create a spot for a guy who just made it past the fourth inning for the first time in four rehab outings Monday and earlier this year went 1-4 with a 6.56 ERA.
It’s impossible to know all the factors the front office is weighing, but it’s not unreasonable to think they could consider putting him in the bullpen, at least initially.
A similarly ugly decision looms with Johnny Cueto‘s season nearing resurrection (elbow), and whoever has the final call is not in an enviable position. Do they cut two of three rising rookies to make room for both veterans? Or do they put Samardzija in the ‘pen and wait until he either pitches his way into the rotation or one of the rookies pitches their way out, allowing them to put off cutting anyone until they reactivate Cueto?
What’s most likely though, is a contingency plan in which Samardzija only finds a home in the bullpen if he struggles. And in that scenario, Rodríguez as the most junior arm, or Stratton with the weakest recent performance, are likely targets for the axe.
As a team realistically still in the run for the division, they can only gamble so much with the unknown when they have a recipe for success staring them in the face, though.
San Francisco fell to the Rockies 5-2 in game one of three Monday night in Denver after the Giants bullpen crumbled in the seventh and eighth innings.
The Giants and Stratton (8-5, 4.45 ERA) will face Rockies right-hander Antonio Senzatela (2-1, 6.23 ERA) Tuesday in the second game of the series. First pitch is set for 5:10 p.m. PDT.