Matt Cain was called up in August, 2005. He was just 20 years old and one of the 13 best prospects in the game, sandwiched between Dallas McPherson and Jeff Francoeur. You know what he did with the Giants and his importance to the overall success of the franchise. What I want to remind you of today, though, is the awful burden he carried on the behalf of disappointed fans everywhere. The Giants were old, and they were incapable of developing starting pitchers. Cain was supposed to fight both demons at once.
The Giants were just seven games out of first place in 2005 when Cain was brought up, but that was only because the NL West was a sloppy mess that year. It was an awful team, languishing at 57-73, with their expected record even a little bit worse. The pitching was a mess, and the lineup, well, the lineup was miraculous. In a bad way.
There was one regular starter for that team under the age of 30. That was Jason Ellison, but he lost his job when they traded for Randy Winn. Then every starter was 30 or older. On Opening Day, four of the Giants’ eight starters were 37 years old or older, and that was something of a disappointment. The original plan was to start five players who were 37 or older, but Barry Bonds got hurt.
This was bad news because not only was the team old, but the farm system was ranked in the bottom half of baseball. The year before, the Giants intentionally signed Michael Tucker before the arbitration deadline so that they would lose their draft pick. Repeat: The Giants gave their draft pick away on purpose because punting that first-round bonus was the only way to afford Tucker, who wasn’t good in the first place.
Also, Barry Bonds was hurt. We mentioned that.
And the Giants were bad.
So that’s the first glob of context you’ll need. The Giants had contended in every season since 1997, and this was the first year when they saw the sands falling out of the bottom of the cracked hourglass. The Bonds injury, in particular, was a revelation. “Waaaaaait a sec,” a lot of us thought. “Maybe constructing all of our hopes around a 40-year-old slugger as if time doesn’t exist is a bad idea.” When Bonds broke, it felt like the window slammed shut on our fingers.
Pedro Feliz was the everyday left fielder that season, which was almost like using Brandon Crawford at first base. It was a complete waste of his most valuable skill.
And the Giants were bad.
The second glob of context is that the Giants were completely incapable of developing star pitchers. Here’s a ranking of the best starting pitchers developed by them in the previous 20 years:
- Francisco Liriano
- Scott Garrelts
- John Burkett
- Terry Mulholland
- Russ Ortiz
- Ryan Vogelsong
- Does Joe Nathan count?
- What about Keith Foulke?
Even with the success stories, there were asterisks. Liriano was traded, as were Mulholland, Vogelsong, Nathan, and Foulke. Burkett gave the Giants some of the best years of his career, but he was dealt shortly after the strike. Terry Mulholland was a three-time Giant, but he was worth -3.7 WAR in those three stints. Garrelts was an All-Star, but he was always hurt.
Russ Ortiz was the gold standard in a lot of ways. Three out of his four full seasons were absolutely solid, and the season that didn’t feature good overall numbers was a lopsided one that ended with him going on a tear and becoming a reliable postseason option. It’s not his fault that ... well, you know. The game ball.
Still, if that’s the success story over a two-decade period, it’s saying an awful lot. Back then, Giants fans weren’t worried about developing outfielders as much as they were worried about developing pitchers. And that list above was just with the pitchers who had some success in the majors. If you want a list of Giants pitching prospects that gets right to their cynical, blackened heart, you have to start with Jesse Foppert, Jerome Williams, and Kurt Ainsworth. Those three were basically Maddux, Glavine, and Smoltz, and one of you stole that reality from me and uploaded something else.
The Giants were successful with the help of some savvy trades (Shawn Estes, Kirk Rueter), but they were completely incapable of developing their own star starters. Even when they worked out, there was always something wrong. They would get hurt (Garrelts) or fail to harness their control (Ortiz) or get traded (like, all of them).
Matt Cain came up and was good right away. He had some wonky control at first, but it got better. He stayed healthier than any of his peers, and he succeeded, over and over again. By the time he was Ty Blach’s age, he had started more than 200 games and made two All-Star teams.
Matt Cain came up when the Giants were bereft of hope. They were dreadful, they had a poor farm system, and their best player was 40 years old and busted.
Matt Cain came up with a decades-long history of Giants pitching prospects breaking hearts.
It would have been perfectly on brand for Cain to break your heart and keep the Giants awful.
But he was excellent and excellent again, even as the Giants fell into a vat of electric eels and kept losing. He didn’t mind, and he was excellent and excellent again until he helped pull the Giants up by their nostrils into the realm of the relevant.
This was all true before 2010. Even before that season, Cain was special in a way that few Giants were. He was already realized potential to a degree that we weren’t used to. And then 2010 happened. And 2011. And 2012.
Oh, sweet 2012.
That’s the point. Before Cain was one of the best pitchers in Giants postseason history (dig that 0.00 ERA in 2010), he was already a marvel. I would have been happy with all of it. He helped them ascend, and he was a fan favorite, sure, but everything before that goes a long way to explaining why he’s as revered as he is. The Giants had no hope. The Giants could never develop starting pitchers. The Giants were never going to win again.
And then ... Matt Cain.