Going into Spring Training, the Giants offense has extremely good odds of not being the worst in baseball (A welcome change from last year). The front office identified the many, many needs they had in the lineup, they went out and did their best to fill them, and even if I am perhaps worried about the long term consequences of some of those moves, well, at least it’s an ethos.
So let’s talk about the pitchers. Projection systems think the top of the Giants rotation will be okay. Madison Bumgarner, Johnny Cueto, and Jeff Samardzija are projected to combine for about 8 wins by ZIPS, and about 6 according to Baseball Prospectus. By ZIPS, that’s about one win better than they did last year; by BP, it’s about one win worse. None of those projections are especially rosy, but none are projected to be disasters, and these systems are notoriously shy about predicting breakouts, especially for players coming off injuries. Wanna slap on a few extra wins? Hey, go ahead. Free country and all.
Here’s what the Giants need to back that up: no injuries and better seasons from their fourth and fifth starters than they’ve gotten from any farm product since Madison Bumgarner. Fangraphs had Chris Heston worth 1.5 wins in 2015 and Ty Blach worth 1.3 last year; those are the two best seasons for homegrown Giants who weren’t in the majors in 2009 (a sentence I carefully phrased so as to exclude Bumgarner, Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez) since they started winning World Series and whatnot.
It’s not ragging on Tyler Beede to say that he had a 4.79 ERA in AAA last year. It’s not insulting Andrew Suarez to point out that he only started 13 games for Sacramento and we don’t know how major league ready he is. It’s not unreasonable to look at Chris Stratton putting up a sub-3 ERA as a starter in the majors last year and notice that that’s completely out of line with everything he’s done in the minors since he was in Augusta (and also with advanced stats). Ty Blach either wore down as the season went on or the league figured him out. Derek Holland, uh, (pats him on head) there, there, buddy. There, there.
The 2017 Giants came into the season with 4 established major league starters you could expect to be good (Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Matt Moore), Matt Cain, and not much in AAA. It didn’t go that well. The 2016 Giants were counting on 4 guys (Bumgarner, Cueto, Samardzija, Jake Peavy), also had Matt Cain, and ended up trading for Moore midseason. That rotation was top-heavy and it faded after the All-Star Break, but overall it was pretty dang good. In 2015, the team mostly expected a bunch of over the hill guys to rebound or keep defying age even though they’d stopped defying age at some point in 2014, and the strategy failed. The 2014 rotation necessitated the Jake Peavy trade, the 2013 rotation had a very good Bumgarner and an okay Cain and after that was a disaster, and the 2012 team saw Tim Lincecum fall apart but otherwise everything basically went as right as you could hope.
Every single Giants team since 2012 has desperately needed a pitcher to step up from the farm system, and every time it hasn’t happened. Now Plan A is for two pitchers to step up, and man, that’s dangerous. Plan B is for two different pitchers to step up, and I don’t know what Plan C is. As much as I’m for playing the kids, giving them 40% of the rotation on a supposedly contending team when they absolutely have not proven themselves is the kind of big downside risk that we haven’t seen from the Giants in a long time.
The back of the pitching staff is basically the 2018 Giants equivalent of the 2017 Giants left field situation, where you had a lot of red flags on both Option A and Option B, and after that, things really started to get dicey. When things go wrong — and things always go wrong in baseball seasons, especially with pitching staffs — the team is going to need pitchers to step up immediately instead of when they’re ready (or if they’re ready, shout out to the pessimists). It’s not impossible that that’ll happen, but then again, not impossible is a pretty far cry from likely.
So if you’re expecting the Giants to contend this year, this is the part of the team that you need to send all your good vibes to. This is why the Giants are interested in starters who haven’t been good since 2013 or 2011. There are a lot of ways for the 2018 Giants season to fall apart. This might be the biggest.