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The Giants finally hinted that Matt Cain might not get the fifth starter’s job

It’s been an ugly spring for Matt Cain and a brilliant one for Ty Blach. Bobby Evans suggested there just might be a competition after all.

MLB: Spring Training-Cleveland Indians at San Francisco Giants Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve known since, oh, last September that the Giants were planning on a battle for the fifth starter’s gig, and that the battle was Matt Cain’s to lose. Then the spring started, and Bruce Bochy hinted that the battle was Cain’s to lose. Then he struggled, and there was a great clearing of the organizational throat, which was to remind us that the battle was still Cain’s to lose. Then he struggled again, and you can see where this is going.

There’s finally a hint that the Giants might actually be worried about Cain’s spring training (and last four seasons), though. GM Bobby Evans was on KNBR on Wednesday, and there was a discussion about the different possibilities and permutations:

I think (moving to the bullpen) will require an adjustment in such a way that it’d be hard to start the season having competed for the starter role and then start the season in the bullpen. I think it could be a challenge. It may require some time in the minor leagues adjusting to that role. But again that’s not really in the discussion right now.

It’s possible that the Giants are seeing positive signs from Cain in spring training, things that might not show up in the box score. Maybe there’s an improved secondary pitch, better command than he’s getting credit for, or an improved spin rate — something that’s a little too nuanced for the average fan or blogger — that’s secretly getting optimistic. That’s fine! They’re the smart ones who signed Travis Ishikawa, and I’m the guy who picked Sonny Gray to win the AL Cy Young last year.

But if they’re grimacing along with us and hoping for something to change, that’s a problem. This is an indication that, perhaps, they’re grimacing.

I’m not sure how seriously we should take the suggestion that Cain might hone his reliever skills in the minors, but it makes some sense. It would have to come with his permission, but there are nice hotels in Sacramento. Lots of taffy shops in Old Town, too. And it might make him feel comfortable to face Triple-A hitters, albeit in a better hitter’s environment, when it comes to learning relief. Jake Peavy didn’t have that luxury, and he didn’t do well with his shift to the bullpen.

It’s almost useless to look at Cain’s splits for 2016 and extrapolate to his potential success as a reliever. Yes, he had success in the first couple innings of most of his appearances last year before falling apart. No, that doesn’t mean he’ll be a good reliever. It could! We just don’t know.

I write “almost useless” because there’s split buried in Cain’s career that might give us a hint about how he would do as a full-time reliever, and it’s not so small that we have to worry about sample-goblins. Cain’s career walk rate is much higher in the first inning, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is over a full strikeout worse than it is in the second inning. This suggests that he needs a little time to warm up and get in a groove, possibly with a bunch of those weird shoulder-shrug things that he does.

On the other hand: Joe Blanton. If he can carve out a second career in the bullpen, so can Cain. And if the Giants are paying him regardless, they might as well try to blantonize him, just with less durfiness.

The odds are still strong that it will be Cain in the fifth-starter’s role, spring be damned, with everyone in the organization crossing their fingers. That doesn’t seem like the wisest, most proactive solution, but it won’t be dull!

Indeed. But I’m starting to get a sense the fifth-starter’s batting isn’t the done deal that it appeared to be at the beginning of spring.