The Danger of Being Top Heavy
by Jim Silva
The Giants are not a .500 team. Ok, well they were a .500 team for a while then rattled off eight wins in a row. There is no way they finish at or below .500 – they are just too good. Certainly there is always a way to look like a good team during the spring and turn it into a mediocre or bad team by late summer. The Angels didn’t look like world beaters during spring, until they lost two of their top starting pitchers and now have a nice four man rotation on the DL or about to go on the DL with Richards, Heaney, Skaggs, and Wilson hurting. The Cubs, who have an obscene amount of depth have been able to weather the loss of their starting left fielder Kyle Schwarber, but could they handle another major injury? Last year the Giants were hurt by injury about as much as your average team. They lost Hunter Pence, Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Tim Hudson for a considerable amount of time. Pence’s absence probably hurt the most as the other three weren’t stars anymore, even if they were paid like stars.
This off-season the Giants added about 400 innings of quality to their starting rotation after parting ways with Lincecum and seeing Hudson retire. They now have aces in the top three spots in the rotation with Madison Bumgarner returning and being joined by Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardizja. The rest of the rotation isn’t pretty, nor does it especially need to be to start the season. Jake Peavy and Matt Cain have seen better days, so the Giants will likely fill the 4th and/or 5th spots with Chris Heston, Clayton Blackburn, or Ty Blach at some point this season. None of them are anything to write home about but they should all work as 5th starters. The Giants don’t have any starting pitchers with star potential ready to jump to the big club from the high minors, which leads me to the following thought. There is something that could get the Giants into a lot of trouble – losing any of their top three starting pitchers might be enough to knock them not only out of contention, but to below .500 because they don’t have the pitching depth or the quality of minor leaguers to make a move to rally from such a loss.
Peavy seems to have righted the ship a bit, lowering his ERA from the nines (yikes!), to a far more respectable 5.83 with an ERA from last two starts of 3.27. Cain also pitched better for a bit before landing on the DL again (twice actually) with hamstring strains. His ERA currently sits at 5.34 and the Giants have recalled Chris Stratton, who’s ERA of 6.02 in AAA this season is unlikely to get Giants’ fans excited. It’s curious that the Giants didn’t recall Chris Heston, Ty Blach, or Clayton Blackburn instead of Stratton. None of their AAA starters have impressed so far, although Blackburn has the lowest ERA of the bunch at 3.36. It is possible that the Giants expect Cain back soon so they took the pitcher least likely to be disrupted by a quick trip up to the bigs then back down. If so, then they are showing a lot of faith in Cain.
What all this leads to is talk about the Giants trading for an arm at the trade deadline. Barring a barrage of injuries, they will likely win the NL West as the other teams in the division have had their flaws exposed early and haven’t addressed them yet. The question then becomes how will the Giants perform in the post-season? So the Giants, a team with excellent infield depth, a superstar at catcher, a solid bullpen, and decent outfield depth, are thin (but really strong at the top) at starting pitcher. You might respond, “Who isn’t thin in their rotation?”, and you’d have a good point. Three stud starters can take a team far in the playoffs, but again, if one of the big three gets hurt then rotation depth starts to matter. The Giants would have to rely on Peavy or Cain (or his replacement) and that could be their undoing. Other teams have lost one of their top three starting pitchers and gone deep into the post-season in recent years, right? Well yes, but what they had that the Giants don’t have currently was depth in their rotation and/or some stud prospects to trade for a top-of-the-line starting pitcher before the trade deadline. The Nationals, for example have both rotation depth AND high end prospects who would fetch a hefty return in trade. I would trade my car and throw in my favorite cousin for Trea Turner (for example). The Mets have insane depth in their rotation and some hot prospects to trade if the need arose – Amed Rosario, or Gavin Cecchini anyone? The Cubs don’t have great rotation depth but are stocked to the rafters with young, coveted prospects. Since the Giants passed on Tim Lincecum, who they could have signed for cheap without giving up a prospect, they will have to give up something to get a starter during the season – probably a valuable something.
Once the Giants replace one of their faltering starting pitchers with one of the 5th starters they have toiling away for the Sacramento River Cats, what will they do if they need to do it again? They could trade away some of their major league depth – one of their utility infielders – Kelby Tomlinson (off to a great start, but currently on the DL) might fetch an arm to eat innings but not a top three starter, even as a rental. They would have to make a difficult choice, like trading away one of their young position players if they wanted quality back and that would hurt them on the field causing a problem where one didn’t previously exist. The Giants are top heavy in their rotation and don’t have enough depth to support the loss of one of their big guns. There are worse problems, like not having three great starting pitchers, but the Giants aren’t vulnerable in many places and this is one place that might be enough of an achilles heel to topple them if something goes wrong. Oh Timmy, where art though, Timmy? My kingdom for The Freak!