Giants’ next moves will tell us whom they trust more in 2016: Matt Cain or Angel Pagan

It’s fun when we get to hear from sources, especially when those sources turn out to be correct. But the real party, at least for baseball nerds, would be to shrink down to fly-size and cling to a wall inside a conference room while baseball executives discuss what they’re going to do.

  • What are our top priorities, and how are they ranked?
  • Who do we really trust, and who is considered expendable, flaky, or an obvious injury risk?
  • Scouts, what do you think? Who’s on the ascent and who’s deteriorating more than the public could ever know?

These conversations take place all year long, about every player. But the most discussion during the Giants’ meetings and conference calls has probably centered on two players who dominated the league at times in 2012, but due to injuries haven’t reached that level since.

Angel Pagan

  • 2012: 154 games, .288/.338/.440, 4.0 WAR, 29-of-36 on stolen bases
  • 2013-15: 300 games, .279/.323/.370, 0.4 WAR, 37-of-51 on stolen bases

Pagan was actually a net-positive in 2013-14 when he played, but he missed a combined 157 games. He *only* missed 29 games in 2015, but his WAR dipped to a career-low -1.9 due to his offensive struggles (low on-base with almost no power) and very poor center field defense.

He hit a ton of singles in April of 2015, then didn’t hit at all over the next four months. After a disabled list stint in August, he returned and finished strong (Sept/Oct: .274/.346/.416, first three homers in forever, some memorable highlight plays in center).

Either the Giants are expecting another powerless, injury-plagued season, or they’re confident that Contract Year Pagan will perform for an entire season like he did in September.

Matt Cain

  • 2012: 16-5, 219.1 innings, 2.79 ERA, 1.04 WHIP, 3.9 WAR, 3.78 K/BB
  • 2013-15: 12-23, 335.1 innings, 4.51 ERA, 1.24 WHIP, -0.1 WAR, 2.51 K/BB

Cain had elbow surgery in 2014, and his return was delayed a year later due to a strained flexor tendon. Cain’s 2015 was essentially a lost season. However, in similar fashion to Pagan, Cain finished the year with a performance that provided a glimmer of hope: five shutout innings against the Rockies with only two hits allowed on Oct. 4. It was one of only four outings in which Cain didn’t allow a home run (he gave up 12 in his other nine appearances).

Cain seems to feel like that start was a breakthrough of sorts.

“I felt like I was effortless, doing some things that I had always done,” Cain said. “… That’s what we’ve done for so long, that was something that’s built in to me. I’m able to go out there and pitch in a way and not think about ‘Where’s my arm? Where’s my leg? Where’s everything?’ Go out there and let’s just attack the hitter and make pitches and go about doing our business, and doing our job.

“I felt like I was able to do that in that last start.”

The Giants’ next moves

None of this happens in a vacuum. The market will dictate how the Giants spend their money, since they’re dead set against agreeing to a contract they’d consider an “overpay.”

We also don’t know how they feel about the outfielders and pitchers on the 40-man roster who’ll compete for spots this Spring. That list includes Jarrett Parker, Mac Williamson, Chris Heston, Clayton Blackburn and Ty Blach.

But Pagan and Cain are the real tipping points. If they think Pagan’s knee problems are behind him, and he can lead off and play respectable defense for an entire season, that would allow them to spend most of their remaining budget on a starting pitcher … if they’re worried about Cain, that is.

If they think Cain is good for 180+ strong innings in 2016, that would conceivably give them four solid pitchers in the rotation. In this case, they might settle for whatever cheap fifth starter candidate they can scrounge up in the coming weeks — a pitcher who could compete with guys like Heston and Blackburn to see who’s the No. 5 and who replaces Yusmeiro Petit as the long reliever. This signing would likely occur after they either signed their next full-time center fielder (Dexter Fowler comes to mind) or an expensive everyday starter in left (Alex Gordon, Yoenis Cespedes or Justin Upton) while hoping Blanco can handle center if Pagan falters.

When asked about Nori Aoki one day after the season ended, Bobby Evans spoke highly of Blanco’s offensive production in 2015, hinting that they could count on him to start for a considerable amount of time if needed in 2016. If the Giants sign a 150-game outfielder like Cespedes/Upton/Gordon/Fowler, that probably means they’re not so confident in Pagan.

If the Giants sign a No. 3 starter — like Mike Leake or Wei-Yin Chen — the Giants would be paying their top five starters a total of around $70 million in 2016 (and that’s only because Samardzija’s deal is backloaded). That’s quite a bit, considering Madison Bumgarner is only making $9.75 million.

If they sign a guy like Gerardo Parra — who’s said to be seeking a four-year deal (eek!) — and a starter of similar cost, then we’ll just have to assume they’re equally concerned with how Pagan and Cain will fare in 2016. But if they go big-ticket on an outfielder or starter, we’ll have a good idea how those internal conversations went as they headed into this offseason.

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