There is hardly anything more arbitrary than the one-through-five slotting of starting pitchers. Teams talk about getting "a fourth starter" or "a number two", when they should really just be concerned with getting a good pitcher. The Giants have something like three number twos, a five, and a six, but they're looking to bump the five to a four and bring in a number five to replace the six, hoping that one or two of the twos becomes a one. Unless, of course, the five can stay a five, and the team could somehow find a four to squeeze the six out, or all three twos become ones which leaves a whole lot of nothing from two to four, or all three twos pitch like threes and fours, which would be a nightmare.
The arbitrary designations didn't come out of thin air, and the above is much too flip. There are good reasons for the slotting, and it really doesn't have much to do with how a rotation is set up. If a team lets the press know they're looking for a number one starter, it can be safely assumed they're looking for one of the top 20 pitchers in the game. If the same team is looking for a number two starter, that implies certain qualities as well. They'd love a staff filled with five of the best pitchers in baseball, but that's not realistic. So a number two starter implies the next step down, the best pitcher available within a set of budget or trade limitations. The numeric designation for a starting pitcher is little more than a rough assessment of that pitcher's ability and expectations. In that sense, it is a very convenient shorthand method of describing a pitcher.
Different people will have different definitions for the rankings. One person's number two is another's third starter. Brett Tomko might be acceptable to some as the fourth best pitcher in a rotation, others would cringe if he were anything but a fifth starter. But almost all of us have unconsciously formed our own set of definitions. The Giants are looking for a starter to complete the rotation; not necessarily a fifth starter, but close enough.
The idea of what constitutes a final rotation piece is probably the one which is least agreed upon. If the bile in my stomach were a publicly traded company, all this talk about Shawn Estes would have sent its stock through the roof. So, without further ado, my qualifications for the last man in a rotation:
- A chance at mediocrity. Brett Tomko, for all of his perceived faults, has a nice chance every year to post an ERA right around the league average. A rookie pitcher who had some sort of success in the minors has an excellent chance to be shelled in a large portion of his outings. He also brings the possibility he will quickly adjust, and be a league-average pitcher right away. It might not be likely, but having a realistic chance is all this magical spot is about.
- A reason to have the teeniest of tiny hopes for more than mediocrity. A pitcher like Tomko would have the blazing fastball. A rookie might have great stuff, zero control, and the hope would relate to his command clicking into place. Pitchers like Al Leiter or Kevin Brown have a past history of dominance, and a current history of leaving the bathroom without burning a match. Maybe, just maybe, they can squeeze another good season out. The veterans are more for a team looking for a short-term fix, and the rookies are more about developing for the future, but both of the examples could conceivably help a contender immediately.
Not to dig up Seabiscuit and start pummeling him, but Shawn Estes doesn't pass that particular smell test. His erratic curveball is the only thing that even approaches average, and it's been five years since he's had a decent season. Not a good season, not a great season, but a decent season. His fastball is gone, his control might even be getting worse, and he probably hasn't put much practice time into sliding, either. Picking someone up to allow Brad Hennessey to develop in AAA or as a long reliever is a great idea. It provides the Giants with crucial depth, and I'm all for it. Just not Estes, please.
I'm sure Pedro Feliz would be able to bring back a decent candidate in a trade, should the Giants pick up Bill Mueller. There are still some candidates on the market, like Leiter or Tony Armas, Jr., as well. There are more candidates to bring in ahead of Hennessey, it seems like, than minor-league free agents to slot behind him. Giving Hennessey the job out of the box wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, either. The Giants rotation is mostly set, and arguing about the fifth starter is almost a luxury. I just hope that last spot is filled by someone worth watching, and someone with the potential to surprise.