We've been waiting for this decision for a while, but I always figured something else would go wrong first. The Giants are about to get all of their starting pitchers back, and it's a gonna lead to a roster mess. A fascinating, unavoidable roster mess.
First, the update on Matt Cain:
Matt Cain's fastball was 90-94 for Sacramento last night and mostly sat around 92 mph. Cain was pleased with his stuff and said he just needs to work on getting his pitch count up.
And now Jake Peavy:
Peavy, who has been sidelined with lower back and hip discomfort, completed seven innings and approached 100 pitches in a rehab start for Triple-A Sacramento on Tuesday. He has enough time to make one more rehab start before his 30-day clock would expire. The plan is for Peavy to make that start for the River Cats. But as Bochy said, "We probably could activate him now."
I would suggest a steel-cage match, but I would really only want to watch Madison Bumgarner throw other people around, and he wouldn't even be a part of the steel-cage match. So what's the point? Instead we have six starting pitchers for four spots. It's time to rank them in order of how likely they are to keep their job.
Before we rank, please remember the rules:
Also, Bochy ruled out shifting to a six-man pitching rotation when Matt Cain & Jake Peavy return
— Chris Haft/SF Giants (@sfgiantsbeat) June 18, 2015
No six-man rotations. Even if you think it's a good idea.
1. Madison Bumgarner
This is a name that I'm including because I don't want you to think I forgot about him. He's just not a part of this discussion, only because Bruce Bochy is concerned with "winning" instead of "cheap laughs," which is kind of a shame.
2. Chris Heston
Just like we all expected before the season, Heston is something of a rotation mainstay now. Using Fielding Independent Pitching, which focuses on the walks, strikeouts, homers, and innings pitched, Heston has been roughly as effective as Bumgarner this year, with a 3.33 FIP to Bumgarner's 3.29. Even if the Giants aren't focusing on that, he's one of only three starters with an ERA under 4.00, he's throwing more innings per start than anyone other than Tim Hudson (ahead by just a third of an inning), and the team is 8-5 in his starts, the best mark on the team.
The no-hitter shouldn't count for anything, at least as far as something that can predict future results, but it sure is hard to forget. There's proof that he can dominate, which isn't something the Giants have gotten from anyone other than Bumgarner this year. Heston is almost certainly in the rotation until he pitches his way out of it.
3. Tim Hudson
He hasn't earned this ranking, not considering he's 6-16 over the last calendar year, with a 4.69 ERA. The Giants just don't know what to do with him. He's ill-equipped to relieve. They aren't going to cut him. He's not going to go on the DL and sit out the rest of his final season with a mystery injury. And there's still a chance he could find the location that's been missing for the last year, which would make him a mighty fine mid-rotation option.
4. Matt Cain
The Giants haven't seen what a clean-elbowed Cain can do yet, and they'll be eager to find out. This is me being the creepy old dude in The Graduate, sidling up to you and whispering one word: ceiling. We've seen what Cain can do when he's healthy. The last time the Giants won the NL West, they did it with him as their undisputed ace. That wasn't last week, but was still recent enough to dream happy dreams.
Take a moment to imagine Cain sitting at 92, with the curve and change you remember, hitting his spots with relative ease. It's very, very calming. It's basically a narcotic, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. That doesn't mean the best-case scenario is likely to happen, but the Giants have no choice but to try.
5. Jake Peavy
This is not about ceiling. It's about the floor. And Peavy's floor is just about the highest of the remaining candidates. He's also the only pitcher out of the remaining three who has pitched better than the league average in any of the last three seasons (and he's done it twice.)
This will probably be a scouting decision, but he's almost certainly in the rotation when he's healthy. He doesn't make a lot of sense as a long reliever, not against the competition below.
6. Tim Lincecum
You don't think they'll actually do it, but then re-read that list up there and see whose spot Lincecum takes. Heston, maybe, but that would be insane to anyone who has watched them both pitch over the last month. Since Lincecum's gorgeous, seven-inning/zero-run outing against the Dodgers, he's had five starts, walking 14 and striking out 21 in 25 innings, giving up six homers and sporting a 5.61 ERA. And yet, somehow I thought that ERA would be even higher.
Add in the idea that Lincecum's stats have been predicting this trend all season, which the Giants are certainly aware of, and his small-sample success as a reliever in the postseason, and this will be the most difficult choice they make. But also the most obvious.
7. Ryan Vogelsong
He was making this decision harder for a while, but he didn't have a rotation spot before the season, and he's not pitching well enough to justify one now. He gave up as many earned runs in his last start (four) as he did in five June starts combined, but considering his last three seasons, it's much more likely that his May was the fluke, not his June.
Lincecum and Vogelsong in the bullpen is my guess, with Michael Broadway and Hunter Strickland sent down. Which is a problem that should probably be explored in a column of its own, but there's time for that when it happens. Until then, the Giants have a decision to make. I've looked at this for a couple hours, now, and this is the only danged permutation that makes sense.
Unless someone gets hurt or the Giants make a surprising roster cut, the best guess at the rotation is Bumgarner/Heston/Cain/Hudson/Peavy. Wish them well.