Pitchers and catchers report for spring training in 40 days and the San Francisco Giants’ starting rotation is full of red flags. The latest is that Tim Hudson underwent surgery to remove bone spurs from his ankle and expected to be sidelined six to eight weeks.
With hot stove transactions slowing to a simmer, it looks like the Giants’ rotation is set. They have six pitchers under contract for next year vying for five spots, with Madison Bumgarner, Matt Cain, Hudson, Jake Peavy and either Tim Lincecum or Yusmeiro Petit as the fifth starter (with all indications that Lincecum will get the first opportunity).
Every single one of these pitchers has a question mark going into next year that would be cause for concern.
Clearly the Giants should be least concerned about Bumgarner, an absolutely dominant force who drove the Giants to the World Series Championship. However, he put a lot of strain on his arm along the way. As everyone knows by now, 2014 was a 270-inning season from April through October. Bumgarner might be “country strong,” but that kind of workload is just not common in today’s game. There is definitely a risk that his arm gets tired more often next season than it has before, especially with the strength that is required to maintain his 3/4 throwing release.
Peavy is probably next on the list as far as being close to a sure thing, but it’s hard to imagine he’ll be able to repeat the success he enjoyed in the second half with the Giants. He gave up just three home runs in 78 innings after returning to the National League, which suppressed his home run per fly ball rate to a minuscule 3.2%. He also posted a BABIP 15 points below his career average. Both numbers suggest he is a good candidate to see his numbers regress — perhaps not down to his levels in Boston, but probably more toward a back-of-the-rotation starter.
For Cain the red flags are obvious: he underwent surgery in August to remove bone chips from his elbow and had a bone spur removed from his right ankle two months later. Asking him to come back from his injuries and throw 200+ innings would be an awful lot. His numbers have noticeably declined over the last two seasons; part of that might be pitching through injury, but he’s 30 now and at the point where pitchers often exit their primes. The declining strikeout rate, increasing walk rate and increasing home run rate all point to a rocky next three years (Cain is under contract through 2017 at $21 million per season … he also could make $21 million in 2018 unless the Giants decide to buy him out for $7.5 million instead).
There were questions about what Hudson — who started red-hot in 2014 but tailed off as the season progressed — could produce for the Giants even before his surgery. Now the 39-year-old is coming off his second surgery on that ankle in two years.
The Giants’ fifth starter spot is less than perfect, which isn’t all that uncommon. Lincecum, one of the worst starting pitchers in baseball over the last three years, has been a shadow of his former Cy Young self. His strikeout rate (7.7 per nine innings) to fell to a new low last year and his walk rate (3.6 per nine innings) was still as high as ever. The other big concern is that for the last three years he has not kept the ball in the park, posting home run rates of 14.6%, 12.1% and 13.9% while at the same time going from an elite strand rate to one that is among the worst. After three bad seasons it would be foolish to expect anything much different from Lincecum.
The questions around Petit are not as pronounced as the other Giants pitchers. That being said, he has pitched well for just over a full season and hasn’t been a full-time starter in five years. The Giants seem reluctant to hand him anything more than the opportunity to be the in-case-of-emergency starter in Spring Training, which suggests that they don’t believe in his improvement.
That’s an awful lot of question marks for a team that aims to make the postseason in an odd-numbered year for the first time since 2003. If even one of these warning signs becomes an actual problem, the Giants’ rotation and playoff hopes will be in big trouble. After all, there isn’t a sure thing waiting in the high minors who can step in and fix things.