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The Giants are try-curious about the “opener” and other pitching possibilities

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Farhan Zaidi follows Las Vegas’ biggest tourist trap by indulging in his darkest fantasies about pitching and roster construction.

San Francisco Giants v San Diego Padres Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images

The Giants weren’t expected to be big spenders this offseason even with young, marquee talent available, but given the hire of Farhan Zaidi, they were expected to at least be... active. Three days into the Winter Meetings and the biggest move so far has been a waiver claim of Sexy Ken Rosenthal outfielder Mike Gerber. Not a very hot stove.

However!

A lot of the chatter surrounding the Giants from both local and national sources has revolved almost exclusively around pitching. It started with Jon Morosi’s insistence that the Phillies and Brewers were hot for Madison Bumgarner. Then it went to denials and subsequent reports about the Giants’ lack of interest in moving Bumgarner at the moment.

Then there was the talk of recently posted Japanese pitcher Yusei Kikuchi and the Giants having mutual interest. And then there was this morning’s report about the Cardinals inquiring about the availability of Will Smith, which was later followed up by this interesting quote from Farhan Zaidi:

I don’t know about you, but I latched onto the phrase “perceived scarcity”. It’s a phrase that’s applicable to any industry and explains a lot of human / business behavior. On that note, I really thought that Zaidi’s use of it here was his way of saying that pitching depth is relative; and, perhaps, that the Giants weren’t necessarily viewing their situation as being as dire as other team’s.

When you look at what the Giants have from a starting pitching standpoint, though, it’s clear to see that the depth isn’t there, and from Zaidi’s comments this evening, subsequent to his own words from earlier today, it’s clear that the Giants perceive a scarcity there.

Zaidi elaborates:

We have to think a little because of the uncertainty we have from a health standpoint. We’re going to have to explore different forms of pitching staff construction and whether that’s using openers, whether that’s having tandem days where you have two pitchers each throwing three-to-four innings and taking down the majority of the game, I think we’re going to have to develop a plan for the pitching staff that fits the personnel that we have. If we don’t have five guys that we can expect 34 starts and 200 innings from — and very few teams have that — then thinking about some of these alternatives as a way to get through 27 outs every day I think is going to be a topic of discussion with us.

It’s a sober assessment. The hope is that Johnny Cueto is able to make some starts in September 2019, but he’s not going to be able to help the team. Jeff Samardzija is a huge question mark due to health, but also guaranteed to be a below league average pitcher even if healthy. Madison Bumgarner is probably not an ace anymore, but he’s still a good pitcher with a chance to regain some of that lost form if the healing process on his broken finger was a huge part of his declining velocity and overall stuff.

Behind Bumgarner? It’s a couple of kids and more question marks. But even the kids had some question marks.

That’s the view of someone looking at pitching peripherals and seeing some warning signs. In the previous regime, the team would probably angle to leave them out there to work through their troubles, which more often than not leads to Chris Stratton situations where the player just gets overwhelmed by the workload and can’t adjust.

What Zaidi’s proposing might lead to a greater chance of sustained positive development over the course of the season instead of 1-2 good or even great starts followed by 3-4 that causes Bochy, the staff, and the media to call into question the young player’s entire ability as a professional (a pretty standard merry-go-round of behavior over the past 20 years).

But, yeah, you’re here about the opener. Does that mean a reunion with Sergio Romo is in the works? Although he wasn’t the first pitcher to do it, he sort of became the mascot or poster pitcher for the Rays’ experiment. He was somewhat successful in the role, not allowing a run 3 out of the 5 times he opened a game.

It would be fun to have him back with that specific role in mind, especially if the Giants are considering 2019 to be a waste of everyone’s time and just something they need to get through. Beyond that, it will be interesting to see just who the Giants think would be great in the role, given their interest in exploring even more options with their relief pitchers:

As Kenny said earlier, trading Smith and/or Tony Watson makes a lot of sense. The cost certainty and relative performance certainty make them attractive trade chips for other teams. They would certainly provide “surplus value”, which is all the rage.

If you don’t know what I mean by surplus value, here’s a simple way to remember it: 1 win above replacement is valued at $8 million. Will Smith was a 2-win player in 2018 (per FanGraphs), meaning teams would have to pay $16 million to acquire such talent. But his actual salary was $2.5 million, meaning he provided the Giants with $13.5 million surplus value.

Smith is set to make anywhere between $4-$5 million in arbitration (if it goes to a hearing) while Tony Watson is under contract for ~$3 million in each of the next two seasons. Both players are, when healthy, projected to be at least 1-win players. So, there’s your surplus value. Same goes with Ray Black and Reyes Moronta, who will both make the minimum MLB salary ($555,000) and will very likely put up a positive number above 0.0 wins.

But if the Giants field any of these offers, how does that set them up for using an opener and being experimental with the pitching setup? For one thing, depleting depth will definitely necessitate getting freaky with the available talent. That could lead to some intrigue. It could also lead to a situation where Sam Dyson pitches the first inning, giving everyone a chance to arrive at the park, get through security, grab some dinner, and sitting in their seats before even four pitches have been thrown.

The opener definitely has some utility. It gives teams with shallow pitching depth a greater frequency of games in which they can hang in against another team for more innings. It also has the quirk of keeping costs down by making optioning (calling up a pitcher, using him up, then sending him down) part of the pitching strategy, which acts as service time manipulation. And, of course, we’ll see more 95+ mph arms come up, blow out their elbows and then disappear. That’s the modern game.

At some point, the 200-inning pitcher will resurface. For the Giants, that could mean Johnny Cueto in 2022 or Madison Bumgarner in 2019. On that note:

The Giants are unlikely to be in contention in 2019 and the world of possibilities created by Zaidi’s philosophy means we need to enter the season with an open mind about how we see the Giants play baseball. But at least we figure to see one familiar thing on Opening Day.