The San Francisco Giants made a couple splashes this offseason, signing Johnny Cueto to a $130 million deal and Jeff Samardzija to a $90 million deal. They now have four starters locked into the rotation, including Madison Bumgarner and Jake Peavy, but if you want to nit-pick, their fifth slot is still a question mark. Manager Bruce Bochy and General Manager Bobby Evans have stated that Matt Cain will hold that slot, but Chris Heston might be the better option.
Playoff hero and fan favorite, Matt Cain is going into his eleventh MLB season in 2016, but he’s coming off two brutal seasons. In 2013, he showed signs of regression, posting a 4.00 ERA, 3.93 FIP and 1.5 fWAR in 184 1/3 innings pitched, but it got worse in 2014 and 2015, when he posted a combined ERA of 4.83 in 151 innings. He’s getting the benefit of the doubt from management to reclaim his spot in the rotation, but is that the wrong decision?
Steamer, ZiPs and Baseball Prospectus projections all have different feelings. Steamer projects Cain to post a 4.22 FIP with a strikeout rate of 17.5%, ZiPs projects a 4.32 FIP and Baseball Prospectus projects a 3.96 FIP. Now those projections do not directly take into account injuries, but he didn’t show much in 2015 when he finally came back healthy. Giants are hoping for the sub 4.00 FIP projection, which would hypothetically give them a strong rotation.
Chris Heston, on the other hand, was a 27-year-old rookie in 2015 that posted a 3.95 ERA, 4.02 FIP and 1.3 fWAR in 177 2/3 innings after not posting a minor league FIP under 4.00 since 2012 in Double-A. His sinker was his best pitch, helping him accumulate a strong groundball rate of 53%, but the lack of command damaged his second half of the season causing him to post a 5.26 FIP in 66 innings. His first half was a strong one, posting an impressive 3.29 FIP in 111 2/3 innings pitched. The Giants brass said he was experiencing arm fatigue later in the season and they even sent him down to skip a couple starts. It’s easy to assume he fell back to earth in the second half, but you can’t ignore the 100-plus innings pitched with a sub 3.50 FIP. Steamer and Baseball Prospectus project Heston to post a 3.54 FIP and 3.83 FIP respectively while ZiPs slots him at 4.09 for the 2016 season.
It seems unlikely that Cain could lose his spot in Spring Training to Heston, but it is very likely the club is willing to make a change if Cain struggles early in the regular season. Heston is slotted to be the long man, which would make an easy switch in roles if a change is made.