Giants can’t afford to be patient with Matt Cain

Matt Cain allowed three consecutive two-out singles, followed by a triple to the gap in right-center to give the Dodgers a 3-0 lead. Then he made the face above, and that’s when I turned the game off. I had seen enough.

I think we’ve all seen enough. Cain was one of the best pitchers in the National League over the first few months of the 2012 season, culminating in a perfect game I was lucky enough to witness down the right field line, in a seat adjacent to the visiting bullpen. He wasn’t quite as dominant in the second half of 2012. He wasn’t bad, but his strikeouts became less frequent as his walk rate increased. He averaged six innings per outing in five postseason starts, and his ERA was 3.60. Again, not bad, but nowhere near the greatness we saw from young Cain during the 2010 playoffs, when he threw 21.1 scoreless innings and went 2-0 in three starts.

Since 2012, the sixth consecutive season in which he pitched at least 200 innings, Cain has gone from mediocre to spotty to awful.

  • 2013 (184.1 innings): 4.00 ERA, 3.93 FIP, 0.5 WAR
  • 2014 (90.1 innings): 4.18 ERA, 4.58 FIP, 0.1 WAR
  • 2015 (60.2 innings): 5.79 ERA, 5.54 FIP, -0.7 WAR
  • 2016 (89.1 innings): 5.64 ERA, 5.14 FIP, -0.7 WAR

We know the Giants’ reasons for inserting him into the rotation to start 2017. As they like to say, “he’s got a track record.” He’s a powerful clubhouse presence. He’s healthy (we think). He’s close to useless as a reliever. Oh, and the Giants owe him $28.5 million including a $7.5 million buyout next year that they’ll inevitably have no choice but to exercise. They want to get something out of the guy, and there’s no better option at this point than to do everything they can to boost his confidence and hope for the best.

That’s what they believe, anyway. I would’ve started the year with Ty Blach (who followed Cain’s five-hits-in-two-innings performance with two perfect innings) in the rotation and kept Cain in the wings as a long reliever. Then, if Blach struggled and Cain looked strong in his occasional appearances, Cain would arguably be in a better position to succeed as a starter than the current plan: hope like hell that he’ll pitch sort of well in Spring Training and survive the entire season as the expensive guy eating innings in the back of the rotation — like a right-handed Barry Zito, but marginally better.

The most important question of the spring may not have anything to do with left field, the last bench spots, the World Baseball Classic, or how Bruce Bochy will build a bullpen around Mark Melancon. It very well could be: How long of a leash will they give Cain?

They’d be best advised to keep it quite short. As we’ve seen nearly every season since Cain’s Giants became competitive, every win matters.

  • 2016 (87-75): Four games behind the Dodgers, went to New York to face the Mets in a Wild Card game after both teams finished with 87 wins, one game better than St. Louis
  • 2015 (84-78): Eight games behind the Dodgers, missed the postseason
  • 2014 (88-74): Six games behind the Dodgers, traveled to Pittsburgh for a Wild Card game
  • 2013 (76-86): 16 games behind the Dodgers, missed the postseason
  • 2012 (94-68): Eight games ahead of the Dodgers, won NL West
  • 2011 (86-76): Eight games behind the D-Backs, four games behind the Cardinals (no playoffs)
  • 2010 (92-70): Two games ahead of Padres, won NL West on the last day of the season

Vegas has the Giants’ over-under at 87.5 wins this year, which makes sense. They’ve averaged 86.3 wins per season over the last three years and 86.7 wins over the last seven. Their over-under is four games behind the Dodgers, again for obvious reasons. The oddsmakers seem to believe that the Giants will find themselves in the middle of a four-team wild card race, with Pittsburgh (85.5), St. Louis (87.5) and New York (89.5).

Every baseball season is full of crazy successes, failures and injuries that no one could’ve predicted. However, based on everything we know and expect, the Giants’ margin for error in 2017 is almost certain to be extremely small.

We know what will probably end up happening. Cain will struggle in April, look even worse in early May, forcing the Giants to make a change, and Cain will hit the disabled list with “forearm tightness” or something. But when it comes to games they’re willing to surrender in order to figure out once and for all whether Cain is done, they’d be better off if they have a set number in mind. A low number. Like one. Or two. OK, maybe three, but only if one of the first two starts is half-decent.

Or, make it zero and scrap the idea entirely if he looks awful this month.

This is a good Giants team, with elite defense at multiple positions, four veteran starters who range from better-than-serviceable to consistently incredible, and several minor leaguers who could make contributions to the big league club at different points during the season. This could also be the Giants’ last best chance to win a fourth World Series with Buster Posey and Madison Bumgarner anchoring the team. (Posey turns 30 on March 27, in case you were wondering.)

As good as the Giants are, and as fearsome as they become once October hits, this team is no juggernaut. With the Dodgers looking better every year, and a top-heavy National League providing ample competition for the one-game elimination spots (which only appear enticing when you think about the presence of Bumgarner), the Giants can’t afford to mess around with a pitcher they know isn’t major league caliber any longer.

Maybe they believe he is. We’ve seen pitchers resurrect their careers at ages much older than 32 (it’s hard to believe this will be Cain’s 13th major league season). But the Giants have been a little slow in removing Cain from the rotation in recent years, and we all know the signs when he isn’t effective. If he starts the year looking like he did last night, with lifeless fastballs looking hittable both in and out of the zone, they need to be honest with themselves and make a quick, decisive move — even if it might hurt the feelings of one of their longest-tenured player.

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