Matt Cain sure gave us all a scare on Thursday morning, ha ha, the rascal. It's a lot easier to joke about now that we know he'll be out for just 10 days, but that's before the dark realization that at some point this season, the Giants will have to call on their sixth starter. Or seventh starter. Or eighth starter. Or ...
You get the idea. Tapping into organizational depth doesn't have to be a bad thing. The 1989 Giants had 15 players make a start for them, and the team won the pennant. A healthy rotation doesn't have to be an unambiguously good thing, either. The 1998 Giants had six starting pitchers all year, and they lost the postseason by a game because of their below-average starting pitching. The number of pitchers used doesn't have to correlate with success.
It helps to have depth, though. That's a truism that no one will argue with. Here's my best guess at the depth chart behind Matt Cain in the Giants' rotation.
Option #1 - Tim Lincecum
Just seeing if you're paying attention.
Option #1 - Chris Heston
The Giants let Yusmeiro Petit go specifically because they figured Heston would be the odd pitcher out after the free agent bonanza, and it looks like a smart move at this point. There wouldn't have been a spot for both pitchers in the same bullpen, so they might as well save the $2 million for those wacky, unexpected Jimmy Rollins pursuits.
There probably isn't much of a drop off from Petit to Heston as a spot starter, and that's if there's a drop off at all. We're not sure how Heston will respond to relieving, but considering the Giants were 11-31 in Petit's appearances last year, it probably won't matter. In relief, Heston won't pitch the important innings.
As a backup starter, he's probably a little overqualified. Which is a good thing.
Option #2 - Clayton Blackburn
The stats see a young pitcher keeping the ball in the park and preventing runs in a rough environment for pitchers, which suggests that he's a prospect. The scouts see a high-80s sinker that will fool enough batters to make him useful, but not enough to make him a multimillionaire in six years.
A compromise between the two would be just fine, but I still think is upside is underrated in a market that rewards Ervin Santana and Ricky Nolasco for their ability to be cross-your-fingers average. It's possible that he'll be the first pitcher into the rotation if Heston struggles in relief, or if he continues shutting down the Pacific Coast League. He's easily the rookie I'm looking most forward to.
Option #3 - Ty Blach
Blach (pronounced "Block") throws harder than you think, often throwing in the low-90s, and he has excellent control. But his strikeout rate has been downright Rueterian -- in Double-A and Triple-A, mind you -- which is the main reason we aren't all giddy about him as a prospect.
He's on the 40-man roster, though, and he's much more polished than Mike Kickham was when he was called up, so it wouldn't be a total stunner to see him in the majors if calamity strikes and/or he has a breakout season. Lefties with command and low strikeout rates are supposed to throw like, well, Kirk Rueter. That extra tick of stuff-brand stuff makes him a curious pitcher to watch.
Option #4 - Adalberto Mejia
According some prospect-mongers, Mejia is the best prospect on this list. He's the youngest pitcher on the list, certainly, and a fast start in Sacramento might make the Giants go for upside rather than cost certainty if they have to replace a cog in the rotation.
It wasn't that long ago that Baseball Prospectus ranked him the second-best prospect in the system, and if his stock has slipped, it's not because he's a soft-tosser now. It would have more to do with his 50-game suspension for a stimulant and brief nine-start season last year. He was apparently sharp in the AFL last fall, so pretend there's a little arrow doing this ↑ next to his name.
Option #5 - Tyler Beede
You might be surprised he's this low, as he certainly has the highest prospect pedigree of any pitcher on this list, but he's making a transition from a flamethrower to a power-sinkerballer, and the Giants don't need to rush him if they don't need to.
The same caveat applies, though. If it's May, and he's 6-1 with a 2.55 ERA and a high strikeout rate with the River Cats, the decision gets a whole lot easier. His introduction to Double-A was rough, though, so it's probably better to wait for him to succeed in the upper minors before assuming he's the Speaker of the House in this particular line of succession. He's probably the Secretary of the Treasury, and he can go about his business, uninterrupted.
Beede isn't on the 40-man roster, so you might consider ranking him below ...
Option #6 - Chris Stratton
Another first-round pick, Stratton has a four-year minor-league career of being pretty okay. Pretty okay can get pitchers to the majors. Once they're in the majors, pretty okay can morph into something beautiful, and it's not like his minor-league stats are that much different than Heston's were.
Like Beede, the Giants probably won't need to call on Stratton this year. They can let him work on solving Triple-A. Or, at least, looking for a couple of the answers in the back of the book. He's young enough to be curious, but old enough to be something of a known quantity. That is, exactly what you would expect from the 11th starting pitcher on a team's depth chart.
Are there a lot of top-50 prospects up there? No. No, there are not. But I was never tempted to write "Option X: Sign Aaron Harang or something" before any of those pitchers. If we get to the sixth-best starting option, the entire roster is probably radioactive, but even considering that, there's depth behind Cain. Unexciting, competent depth.
They're all Outback Steakhouse pitchers, then. You can and should certainly do better if you have the time and resources, but you won't curse yourself out if you end up there. The Cain scare was a potential bummer because one of my biggest hopes for the 2016 rotation is to see an old friend do well, but the Giants have options. And I'll put a couple quarters on at least one of the above pitchers having an absolutely magnificent season that makes us reevaluate him.
The breadth of options makes you realize why the Giants almost certainly won't sign Tim Lincecum, even if Cain doesn't come back as quickly as hoped. Heston is a solid backup plan, and Blackburn is a very solid backup plan to the backup plan. With any luck, the Giants won't need to dip into anything after that. At least the glass case is half-full if they aren't so lucky.