It’s hard not to feel bad for Giants fans after losing the one player fans most associate with post-season success – Madison Bumgarner. To make matters worse, Bumgarner signed with divisional rivals, the Arizona Diamondbacks, so the fans get to see him in a not-Giants uniform trying to make the Giants lose, and all San Francisco got for him was a draft pick. That has to sting. I know for Giants fans it will be hard to look at their roster for a few weeks, but eventually they will be ready to face reality and when they have grieved, this article will be sitting there like a hug from your best friend after a bad breakup. Who in the name of God will start games for the Giants in 2020, you ask? I’m here for you, man.
There are reasons to despair if you are a Giant’s fan, but there are reasons to hope as well and things are legitimately not as dark as they seem when it comes to the starting rotation. Try to keep in mind that the Giants are in the middle of a “soft rebuild”. They are trying to build a team that will stay out of the cellar and be worth watching, that is building for the long run without tearing it down to the studs. That means looking for bargains and taking short term risks on guys for reasonable costs who could completely flame out, but since they are on short deals, they don’t burden the team moving forward – enter Kevin Gausman. The former “Ace in Waiting” of the Orioles was available in part because of his 5.72 ERA in 2019. There are a couple of things that indicate that this might be a smart signing for the Giants. First of all, even though Gausman has been around a while he will only turn 29 in January. His fastball still sits around 94 and his control is good as indicated by his career walk rate of 2.72 per nine. Two more indicators of a possible brighter future for Gausman is the disparity between his ERA and his FIP – 5.72 versus 3.98 – portending a return to a reasonable ERA. Also, his BABIP was .344 which was 30 points above his career average – another indicator of possible bad luck contributing to his craptastic 2019. Where Gausman gets in trouble – and it has always been this way – is the long ball. His career rate of 1.26 homers per nine is up there, but he is leaving a hitters park in Atlanta and moving to an extreme pitcher’s park where the park and the weather both help to suppress offense. Even if he doesn’t pitch significantly better (which he probably will), his numbers should improve quite a bit. He is not an ace, but as the A’s have shown over the last couple of seasons you can get by without an ace if you can get average pitching and lots of depth. Gausman is a good signing on a one year deal – $9 million, and if he likes pitching in SF he might be a good candidate for an extension at mid-season.
That Johnny Cueto pitched at all last season after missing most of 2018 with a blown out elbow, which finally required Tommy John surgery, was a positive for the Giants. Cueto could not hit water from a boat with his pitches in his short stint at the end of 2019, but with a normal off-season and spring training he should be fine in 2020 – fine for an old guy. He will be 34 in 2020 so Giants’ fans shouldn’t expect prime Cueto, but he has always used deception and variation in his delivery to keep hitters perpetually annoyed, and that skill ages well. I also would not anticipate Cueto to break 200 innings like he did every season from 2012 through 2016. Still, it would be reasonable to expect Cueto to get 30 or so starts and be league average or maybe better because of his sneaky goodness – a mid-rotation starter. Welcome back, Johnny Cueto!
Tyler Beede finally made it up to the bigs and stuck in the rotation in 2019 making 22 starts and striking out 8.69 per nine. But to be more than an innings eater, Beede needs to find the strike zone more often (3.54 walks per 9 in 2019) and keep the ball in the yard as his 1.69 home run per nine rate is untenable. Beede’s ERA and FIP were so close – 5.08/5.03 – and his BABIP was .312 indicating that he got what he deserved. It wasn’t pretty, but even small improvement and continued health would make him valuable as a guy who can get them 30 starts with an ERA under 5.00. Projections see his home run rate stabilizing, but his walk rate being pretty poor and still managing a FIP in the mid-fours. The Giants would gladly take that. Beede works with a four pitch mix including a fastball that averages around 94 MPH. Maybe some work with his pitching coaches will help him maximize his stuff through changing his pitch mix or sequencing. Whatever happens, the Giants need Beede to turn into something useful, and he is already close.
After Tommy John surgery and a suspension for PEDs, Logan Webb is one the Giants couldn’t have been clear on, and to be fair, they probably are still a bit unsure after watching only eight starts in the majors. But Webb’s peripherals show promise that in spite of the 5.22 ERA there might be something of value there. Webb struck out just over eight batters per nine and walked just over three showing fringy control and good strikeout ability. His ground ball rate wasn’t quite as high (48.8%) as what the Giants might have expected from his time in the minors. He had multiple stops with ground ball rates of better than 60%. Webb allowed a few too many homers – 1.13 per nine – but it wasn’t as bad as some of his rotation mates. If he could induce a few more grounders like he did in double-A and triple-A, then the homer rate should come down. If he can manage that while keeping his other rates about the same as last season, then his ERA might even beat his 2019 FIP of 4.12. With a fastball that averages around 93 (even higher from the pen) and a four pitch mix, Webb, who is only 23, could turn into a solid 4 or maybe even a 3 with some growth. There could still be some growing pains, but the Giants have something to build upon with Webb.
It is difficult to be too optimistic about what the Giants have in Jeff Samardzija. He is 34 so any talk of potential is silly at this point. He is not an ace or even a number 2. His ERA last season was 3.52 but his FIP was 4.59. He is no longer a strikeout pitcher (6.95 per nine last season) with a fastball that averages a tick under 92 MPH, but he has good control (2.43 walks over nine) so there’s that. If he induced a lot of ground balls then that might be a sustainable approach, but at just over 36% in 2019 in the launch angle era, that seems like a tough profile to predict anything but decline and volatility. He gave up 1.39 home runs per nine last season which seems appropriate since he gives up so many fly balls. He gave the Giants 181.33 innings last season and that has value, but he is more a back of the rotation guy now who will cost the Giants just north of $18 million. Oh Shark – what could have been!
If any of those five starters falter, there are other guys – pitchers with some serious question marks and a bit of potential to provide value – waiting for a chance. Conner Menez is 24 and gets batters to strike out quite a bit – over 10 batters per nine at each of three stops last season including San Francisco. What Menez also did last year as he climbed through the system was walk more batters as he moved to a higher level starting with 3.02 per nine at double-A, then 4.40 at triple-A, and finally 6.35 in 17 innings in the majors. That dog don’t hunt. The fastball isn’t particularly hard, but the lanky lefty generates well above average spin with it. Unless Menez can get his walk rate down to the mid to low threes, he will probably be a quad-A pitcher or move to the pen. Guys with high spin rates get lots of looks in this age of data so look for him to get a few shots as openings appear.
Dereck Rodriguez had a rough first half and a rougher second half, but at 27 and with two good seasons in a row under his belt before 2019, he should be an early option if the Giants need a starter. His home run rate exploded last year to 1.91 per nine and moving to the bullpen didn’t fix him or even turn him into something useful. His walk rate didn’t increase as much as his homer rate, but he doesn’t dominate, so another half a walk per nine might be enough to turn him from effective back of the rotation option to a quad-A, break glass only in case of emergency kind of guy.
Andrew Suarez, like Dereck Rodriguez, took a big step in the wrong direction in 2019 after showing promise in 2018. He also saw his home run rate explode (1.93) and his walk rate jump (by more than a walk per nine). Suarez is also 27 and doesn’t have a pitch that really separates him from the pack. What he did have before last season was good to excellent control. The Giants didn’t give him much of a chance after he started the season on the IL – he only started two games with the big club – and he wasn’t particularly effective at triple-A in 2019 (probably why they didn’t hand him a rotation spot). Still, a lefty who can throw strikes should get some chances, so watch for reports of health and effectiveness in Spring Training because Suarez could sneak back into the rotation if he reverts to his form from 2018.
It would be worth watching Tyler Anderson’s progress in Spring Training too. The former rotation survivor for the Rockies made five starts in 2019 and was shut down for the rest of the season with something called chondral defect which is short for “his knee was screwed up”. It includes cartilage and possibly bone damage of the knee, which as you can imagine makes it hard to pitch. Anyone who can fashion an ERA in the mid fours over 32 starts in Coors Field (which he did in 2018) deserves lots of chances to see if he can get healthy and recapture that. Mr. Anderson is a tall lefty with excellent control – a career strikeout to walk ratio of 8.32 to 2.81 per nine. There’s a lot to like about this signing assuming he can get past his knee injury, which sounds like a pretty big if for a starting pitcher. This is a very low risk and potentially very high reward move for the Giants since they signed him for $1.78 million on a one year deal. Anderson still has a minor league option left, so if he needs more time to make adjustments once he is healthy, the Giants can give him some time in the minors. Here’s hoping health to Tyler Anderson and a return to form which could turn his signing into an enormous coup for the Giants rotation, where he could slot in as a two or three.
The 2020 Giants seem to be following a similar path to the 2018/2019 A’s in their rotation construction – get a bunch of arms, chuck them at the nearest wall, and see what sticks. In spite of their brief run last season, the Giants aren’t ready to compete, so this strategy makes a lot of sense. I would expect them to do something on the free agent market that will excite Giants fans in 2021 once the Shark’s contract and Johnny Cueto’s even bigger contract is off the books. They are improving their minor league system, and with some luck their ship will begin to turn around in a couple of years. They don’t have an ace anymore now that Madison Bumgarner is gone – he hasn’t really pitched like an ace since 2016 anyway. Their rotation looks to be a collection of threes, fours, fives, and some sixes (which really isn’t a thing). With some luck one or two of the young arms will turn into something more than a rotation filler as they build to their next competitive window. They might also hit on a reclamation project like Tyler Anderson. It is hard to say goodbye to links to your glory days like Mad Bum, but it is the right thing to do when it is obvious that you don’t have enough to chase down the Dodgers and Diamondbacks or even the Padres in 2020. They will find another window to compete with their combination of money and the draw of their beautiful stadium. Don’t despair Giants fans; your day will come!