NL West pitching staff rankings -- No. 2: Giants

NL West pitching staff rankings -- No. 2: Giants
January 30, 2014, 12:15 pm
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In order to compete for the NL West crown in 2014, the Giants will need rebound seasons from the back-end of their rotation. (AP)

Programming note: Get up to date on all the latest offseason Giants news with the Hot Stove Show, Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area

Editor's note: Check back on Friday for the final installment of Andrew Baggarly's NL West rotation rankings.

SAN FRANCISCO – We continue our weeklong rankings of NL West pitching staffs, having already delved into the issues that confront the No. 5 San Diego Padres, No. 4 Colorado Rockies and No. 3 Arizona Diamondbacks.

That leaves the Giants and Dodgers, the NL West’s two biggest rivals and the division’s two biggest spenders. The gap isn’t huge between the two pitching staffs. But when you have Clayton Kershaw, that’s one hell of a tiebreaker.

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SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS

Who’s new: RHP Tim Hudson, LHP Jose De Paula, RHP Erik Cordier, LHP David Huff

Who’s gone: RHP Chad Gaudin, LHP Jose Mijares, RHP Guillermo Moscoso, LHP Eric Surkamp.

2013 rotation ERA (NL rank): 4.37 (13th)

2013 bullpen ERA (NL rank): 3.30 (5th)

2013 overall ERA (NL rank): 4.00 (13th)

Projected rotation: RHP Matt Cain, LHP Madison Bumgarner, RHP Tim Hudson, RHP Tim Lincecum, RHP Ryan Vogelsong

Projected bullpen: RHP Yusmeiro Petit, RHP Jean Machi, RHP Heath Hembree, LHP Javier Lopez, RHP Santiago Casilla, LHP Jeremy Affeldt, RHP Sergio Romo (closer).

 

OUTLOOK:
The Giants brought back four-fifths of a rotation that posted the third worst ERA in the NL last season, only subbing out former A’s right-hander Tim Hudson for former A’s lefty Barry Zito.

But all in all, they could’ve done worse this winter. That’s because they entered the offseason with the daunting task of filling three vacancies in their rotation, and they faced a market where guys like Ricky Nolasco and Phil Hughes got a combined $73 million from the Minnesota Twins.

The Giants ended up spending far less than that to bring back Lincecum, lure Hudson away from Atlanta on a two-year contract and then play a bit of freeway chicken before placing a bet on a better year from Vogelsong.

Those three starters probably hold the key to the Giants’ season. Lincecum has never been a command pitcher, but his peripheral stats, along with an improved studiousness and work ethic in the second half, give hope he can be consistently good for the first time in three years.

Hudson should be a mentor to Lincecum, but the Giants need the decorated right-hander to be more than that. Signed to what looks like a bargain two-year contract because of his ankle injury last July that required surgery, Hudson expects to be 100 percent by the start of spring training and ready to add to his 205 career victories, which leads active pitchers.

Hudson and Vogelsong will turn 39 and 37, respectively, in July – and usually, it’s a bad idea to count on bounce-back years from guys on the high side of 40. But Hudson’s ankle, which he fractured last July, is healing as expected. And even a slight uptick in stuff could make the difference for Vogelsong, who is guaranteed to give you a fight every time he pitches.

But can Vogelsong bounce back? The Giants think so, pinning his flat stuff last year on the double whammy of a short winter and then ramping it up early for the World Baseball Classic. The crushed pinky finger in May, which cost Vogelsong a three-month chunk of the season, almost proved merciful since his every start had been a struggle to that point.

The Giants declined his option but then re-signed him, and actually, Vogelsong can make a bit more than his original deal if he reaches incentives. You generally don’t need to incentivize Vogelsong, though. He’s got his own inner motor, and it’s as loud as a street-illegal chopper. At 36, we’ll find out if the body is willing, too.

The Giants’ pitching problems last year might have obscured what a tremendous season they received from Bumgarner – and that might have been a surprise, because if any pitcher appeared prone to a World Series hangover in 2013, it was the young lefty.

(Remember, a struggling Bumgarner got pulled from the playoff rotation for a time in 2012. He had just enough left in the tank to beat the Detroit Tigers in Game 2 of the World Series.)

Turns out Bumgarner was the last guy the Giants needed to worry about. He finished fifth in the NL in ERA (2.77), seventh in strikeouts (a cruel 199) and his .203 opponent’s average not only ranked behind only Kershaw and the Marlins’ Jose Fernandez, but it was lower than what Lincecum posted in either of his Cy Young seasons.

Bumgarner also ended the season with a stretch of 19 consecutive starts in which he allowed three earned runs or fewer. That was the longest streak by a Giant in a single season since Ed Whitson in 1980.

Here’s guessing Bumgarner won’t get the ball on opening day, though. That honor probably still belongs to Cain, even though his home-run pocked first half was one of many major reasons their title defense went off the rails before the All-Star break.

Cain rebounded to be, well, Cain in the second half. If you just looked at his final stats (8-10, 4.00 ERA), you wouldn’t have much hope for him in 2014. But he posted a 2.27 ERA over his final 10 starts, and of the career-high 23 home runs he allowed, 13 came in his first nine starts. Either he made an adjustment, his arm started to rebound or he just got a bit luckier on those deep fly balls. Either way, he was Matt Cain again. A long, restful offseason should help as well, since he’s the first Giant since Carl Hubbell (1929-37) to make 30 starts in eight consecutive seasons.

Rotation depth was the Giants’ undoing last year and they don’t have much to spare this time, either. They let Chad Gaudin go to the Phillies and Eric Surkamp slipped away on a waiver claim to the White Sox. But Yusmeiro Petit showed a lot of growth at the end of the season, and he’ll begin as the long man in the bullpen. Left-hander Edwin Escobar hasn’t pitched above Double-A but scouts believe the 21-year-old has all the equipment to be ready for big league hitters soon.

Still, the Giants are putting a lot of faith in their starting five.

As for the bullpen, the overall performance (fifth in the NL in ERA) was better than what most fans perceive. The Giants got better by subtracting guys like Jose Mijares and Guillermo Moscoso, who were entirely too hittable.

You can bet Brian Sabean would have preferred to add more pieces beyond retaining prime lefty specialist Javier Lopez (for $13 million over three years), but Santiago Casilla was already making $4.5 million, Jeremy Affedlt was making $5 million and closer Sergio Romo was down to make $5.5 million. (Romo will be a free agent while Affeldt and Casilla are signed through 2015.)

The key to the bullpen is Affeldt, who is so versatile against right-handers and left-handers when healthy. He said he tried to pitch through a groin issue that threw off his mechanics; he had surgery to correct the problem and the Giants are counting on him to return to form.

Romo was a terrific success in his first full season as closer, avoiding any major elbow flareups or knee lock-ups. But durability always will be a question with him. The Giants appear to have a dependable long guy in Petit but not many other long relief options if he’s needed in the rotation. They were exposed last year when that sequence of events happened with Chad Gaudin.

It’ll be up to George Kontos to crack the staff again, perhaps beating out Jean Machi and Jake Dunning. But if Heath Hembree has a big spring, it might not matter. He certainly looked ready last September, when he didn’t allow an earned run in nine games. Right-hander Derek Law and his power curve should be in the big leagues before long, too.

ANALYSIS: The Giants have the most experienced staff in the NL West and Hudson should be a terrific addition both in terms of leadership and quality innings. But given the way they were exposed last year, they probably should have acquired at least one more starting pitcher. Although nobody wants a nice, long offseason, the Giants will probably benefit from it this time.

RANK: 2 of 5.

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