Since the start of the San Francisco Giants’ remarkable World Series run, the team has boasted a strong rotation. From 2010 to 2014, when three championships were won, the rotation had the seventh best ERA in the league, with a 3.73 mark. A disappointing 84-78 record last year shouldn’t be blamed on the starters — injuries to key players played a big role in their failure to make the postseason. Still, the front office was (understandably) uncomfortable with their rotation for 2016. As a result, the team made two big splashes in free agency, signing Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija.
While the rotation is now composed of big names — Madison Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Jake Peavy, Matt Cain, and Chris Heston — it’s not as strong as it appears. In the second half of last season, those six starters combined for a less-than-inspiring 4.46 ERA. Even worse, if you take out Bumgarner’s stellar performance, the rest of the group had a 4.93 ERA, which would have ranked fourth-highest in the major leagues. So, what should we believe? Is the impressive track record of those players a sign of dominance in 2016, or should the Giants be scrambling for more help after last season’s apparent mid-year collapse?
Every great rotation needs an ace, and the Giants are set in that regard. There’s not a whole lot that needs to be said about Madison Bumgarner, who has been dominant since breaking into the league in 2010. The only two things worth mentioning regarding Bumgarner are his performance away from AT&T Park and his workload. Bumgarner’s 4.15 ERA away from home in 2015 is a bit surprising, and something to keep an eye on next season. Still, he had a 3.39 xFIP, so it’s probably not worth worrying about.
The other cautionary detail about Bumgarner is that he’s thrown the seventh-most regular-season innings in baseball since his first full season in 2011, and another 88.1 postseason innings puts him just third in baseball behind James Shields and Clayton Kershaw. This is both a testament to Bumgarner’s durability and a possible concern in the future. We saw the same thing happen last year when James Shields signed — he’s so durable that some teams worried he’d eventually break down. That said, it’s just something to keep in the back of your mind, not a major red flag.
The new and most noteworthy part of the Giants’ rotation is their second and third starters — Samardzija and Cueto. I already wrote a detailed profile on Samardzija’s 2015 season and outlook for 2016, which can be found here. But all in all, his prospects for next season and the future aren’t very encouraging. Samardzija’s 2015 involved some bad luck, but he still led the majors in runs allowed and hits. He lost velocity on his fastball, movement on his sinker, and command of his splitter.
Samardzija’s pitch mix was also changed for the worse in 2015, so an alteration in that regard could help him find some success. Still, he’ll need to improve his velocity, command, and movement on three of his most important pitches if he wants to get back to 2014 levels, and that’s hard to envision. Samardzija’s track record is strong, but in this case, his future performance isn’t likely to reflect that. It’s a pessimistic outlook, but the 30-year-old shouldn’t be expected to be more than a four or five starter next season and beyond.
Luckily for the Giants, they got a very good pitcher in Cueto. The righty is second to only Kershaw in ERA since 2011, and has been an outstanding pitcher for years. He’s a fly-ball pitcher, which makes his strong performance in the small Great American Ballpark all the more impressive and improves his outlook in the spacious AT&T Park. Of course, with every pitcher, there are some risks attached, and in Cueto’s case, his health is a concern. Although Cueto missed just one start last season, it was due to an elbow injury. More specifically, he suffered a minor flexor tendon strain. The injury wouldn’t be that notable, but the issue may have contributed to his 4.34 ERA in the second half. The Giants are adamant that his MRI was clean, though.
There’s a good chance that his second half was an aberration that will be corrected, but any elbow injury followed by poor performance is an ominous sign. Although it is a risk, if the Giants got a healthy Johnny Cueto, they netted themselves a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter.
Although Peavy isn’t the explosive pitcher he used to be, the 34-year-old is still a decent option in the latter half of the rotation. The thing is, Peavy isn’t much more than a four or five starter. This may seem a bit extreme, given that he had a 3.58 ERA last season, but a variety of risks and question marks going into 2016 make for lower expectations.
For one, Peavy has all but lost the ability to strike batters out. Peavy’s 6.34 K/9 last season was 34th-worst in baseball, and unlike some of the other pitchers with low strikeout rates, he doesn’t have the high groundball rate to offset the lack of whiffs. In fact, his 37.9 percent ground ball rate was 14th-worst in baseball. One of the only reasons why his 2015 was so successful was due to an abnormally low home run per fly ball rate — one that is bound to rise next season. In addition, Peavy is not a good bet to throw more than 150 innings, after averaging just 142 innings a year since 2009. Peavy may be a solid presence in the back of the rotation, with an ERA just under 4.00 and poor strikeout numbers, but that’s about all that can be expected of him.
Another previously great pitcher who has had his performance precipitously drop over the past few years is Cain. Cain threw just 60.2 innings last season after 90.1 the year before, and was wholly ineffective both seasons. Although his 2013 campaign was disappointing, his peripheral numbers at least showed potential for improvement. At this point, though, there doesn’t seem to be much hope for him bouncing back. Cain stopped striking batters out, walked more, induced fewer ground balls, and saw his velocity fall even further last season, which is certainly not a good sign. Bone spurs in his elbow and a strained flexor tendon could be the answer for some of his struggles, and there’s a chance that he is healthy for the first time in a couple of years going into 2016. Still, it’s quite hard to imagine much of a contribution from Cain next season, despite being listed as the fifth starter on the depth chart.
If Cain or Peavy flop or are injured next year (which wouldn’t be a surprise), the Giants would have to call on their current sixth starter, Heston. Heston came out of nowhere last season, throwing a no-hitter and finishing with a 3.95 ERA and reasonable strikeout rate. His low-90’s at best fastball and lack of flashy secondaries, as well as a lack of track record, make people hesitant about his breakout 2015. This is understandable, and it’s hard to see him repeating last season’s sub-4.00 ERA despite peripherals that support the performance.
Heston collapsed in the second half, with a 4.91 ERA, and that performance was deserved, according to his 4.74 xFIP. The final numbers were balanced out because of a 3.39 ERA and 3.53 xFIP in the first half, but the Giants can’t be feeling good about the potential of sticking Heston in the rotation next year. He profiles more of a long man at this point, and it’s hard to see him getting much better.
All in all, the Giants’ rotation isn’t as good as it may seem on the surface. The front end is very strong with aces Bumgarner and Cueto, but the supporting cast is anything but. The team will need a big bounce-back year from Samardzija if they want him to be a good third starter, and I’m not optimistic that will happen. In addition, Peavy is a big health risk, and with a capped upside, he’s probably not much more than a fourth starter. Rounding out the rotation is the corpse of Cain, and if he’s injured or ineffective, Heston. Unfortunately, neither of them seem to fit the role of even a fifth starter.
There is some upside in this rotation, but it’s lacking some depth. The deeper you look into the Giants’ starters, the more it looks like what the Los Angeles Dodgers are dealing with: a very top-heavy staff with little depth and stability in the latter half. Will their offense be enough to overcome some weaker outings by Peavy, Cain, Heston, and Samardzija? We’ll see, but the rotation is unlikely to be as dominant as Giants fans are used to next season.