Matt Cain has the big locker at the end. According to Henry Schulman, Cain has the honor previously reserved for Tim Lincecum and Barry Bonds. If you want perspective about how long Cain has been with the Giants, note that Mike Matheny caught his major league debut, and the opposing starter was Byung-hyun Kim. It's been over a decade, with three championships, an All-Star start, and a perfect game mixed in, and now he gets the big locker.
He's also the fifth starter, tenuously holding onto his job, with young kids impatiently tapping their feet behind him. Is it sacrilege to compare him to Todd Wellemeyer in 2010? You bet it is. But it's also accurate. Wellemeyer came to the Giants after a miserable age-30 season, in which he posted a 69 ERA+. Can was 30 last year, and his ERA+ was 65. Wellemeyer's past success got him a chance with the Giants, but it didn't give him a long leash. Cain has the big locker and a longer leash. But on a team without a lot of question marks, he's one of the biggest.
Just take a gander at the projection systems Doug detailed in the morning. The best-case projection has him worth about a win. The worst-case projection has him worth about a half-win. Statistically, everything is pointing toward him being acceptable for a fifth starter, I guess, you know, whatever, assuming there's no one better behind him.
That's all logical and what have you. But when you close your eyes, you can see Matt Cain throwing fastballs by hitters. You see the darting changeup and the surprisingly effective curveball. You see the three All-Star appearances and six straight 200-inning seasons. You remember him as he was, and it's not like he's 40 years old now. He's just 31, and when you open your eyes, you see that he's still throwing hard. Hey, he's two years younger than Ryan Vogelsong was when he returned to the Giants after his tour of the underworld. Why not Cain?
It's the head vs. the heart! Consider his comparable pitchers on Baseball-Reference. Through 2013, his top comp was John Smoltz, Hall of Famer. Now his top comp is Mario Soto, who was an All-Star before he disappeared into the cornfield at Cain's age. So either he'll have a second stage of a brilliant career, or he'll disappear into the cornfield. Same thing, really. Ahem.
Let's look for pitchers who came back with a second stage of their careers, then. Vogelsong is an outlier, but he's near and dear to our hearts. John Lackey isn't quite so near and dear, but he was the most hated pitcher in Boston when he was Cain's age. Three seasons later, he helped the Red Sox win a World Series. Three seasons after that, he picked up stray Cy Young votes. He was buried much deeper than Cain and he wasn't as good in the first place. Edinson Volquez was waiver fodder for years before being a Game 1 starter again.
Pitchers come back from all sorts of calamity.
Now let's look for pitchers who didn't come back with a second stage of their careers. It's, let's see, well, it's a list of hundreds and hundreds of pitchers, all wailing and moaning and floating around like lost souls, trapped in a baseball purgatory for eternity.
No, no, that won't do at all. We should back away from this list.
The statistical models take the injuries into account. When a pitcher enters his 30s with two straight seasons of 15 starts or fewer, computers scream "ALERT ALERT" in an old-timey computer voice because that's how the nerds program them. What they don't take into account is, well, we're all used to the guy being really good. And while that didn't work out so well for us with Tim Lincecum, you can understand while we're all so reticent to think Cain is done.
If the Giants have to be in this spot, where they're contemplating what to do with Cain over the next two seasons, this isn't a bad situation. It's mostly low pressure. There are reasonable options behind him. He's almost certainly the best choice for the fifth spot, too, so it isn't a case of the contract dictating the rotation. There's potential reward that comes with this risk, and it's great enough to prevent the Giants from contemplating any of the alternatives too seriously. That's super, considering Cain is still owed $49.5 million over the next two seasons, and the Giants would really, really, really like to make this all work.
But they didn't spend $250 million this offseason because they want you to buy 2010/2012/2014 merchandise. They're looking to create a team that will lead to new merchandise. And they won't mess around for long, not if Clayton Blackburn starts his Triple-A season like he ended his last one, and not if Chris Heston's sinker is as heavy as it was in the first half of 2015.
I'm still bullish on the horse, though. What can I say? I'm a sap. Tweets like these just encourage me.
Bruce Bochy was extremely encouraged by Matt Cain's throw session today. Positive early sign in #SFGiants camp.— Jerry Crasnick (@jcrasnick) February 18, 2016
He'll give the Giants two more good seasons, I know he will. Why, you just gotta believe me, mister.
Matt Cain, projected 2016
Job entering 2017: Yes
We're at a point in Cain's career where that looks like a bold projection. Remember when that would have looked like the typical projection the systems would spit out, and we would get mad at them? Those were the days, boy. Those were the days.