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Yes, Jordan Hicks is here to start

Hicks isn’t just a glorified reliever.

Jordan Hicks reaching back to throw a pitch. John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

When news broke that the San Francisco Giants were not only signing flame-throwing reliever Jordan Hicks, but planning on using him as a starter, people were skeptical. Not skeptical of Hicks, per se, but skeptical of the Giants actually using him as a starter.

Over on the social media app Elon Musk Buys Nice Things And Burns Them To The Ground X, followers of the McCovey Chronicles account primarily responded to tell me I was an idiot for repeating what the best reporter in baseball, Jeff Passan, had reported: that Hicks was going to start.

Yet it was clear that the Giants intended to do that. Sort of. Kind of. Maybe. A little bit.

Skepticism was warranted. With Alex Cobb and Robbie Ray set to start the year on the Injured List, one could easily make an argument that the Giants were planning on using Hicks in a glorified opener role until the rotation had its holes patched. And a year after both Sean Manaea and Ross Stripling said that they signed with the Giants with the understanding that they’d be in the rotation, it wasn’t hard to find reasons to lift an eyebrow at the proposed “starting” that Hicks would be doing; or at least wonder how long that experiment would last.

I was less dubious than most, for two reasons: the numbers 4 and 44. Those are the years and dollars that the Giants gave Hicks. That’s not an overpay for Hicks, the reliever — in fact, it’s exactly the deal that ESPN’s Kiley McDaniel predicted he’d get at the onset of free agency.

But while the money was predictable, there’s a reason that the team wasn’t. No one had connected the Giants to Hicks, or other top relievers like Josh Hader and Robert Stephenson. The Giants had a strong bullpen last year — one that, despite relying on a huge amount of innings from not-good-enough-to-start-middle-of-game-inning-eaters (that’s the official term), still had an above-league-average ERA and the third-best FIP in the Majors. A reliever was hardly at the top of their to-do list, and last year’s deal for Taylor Rogers — three years, $33 million — opened eyes for being so out of character for the current front office.

In other words, Hicks’ contract, while fair, was not one I, or anyone expected the Giants to pursue for a reliever. It seemed more likely to me that his ability to slide back into a high-leverage bullpen job if the starting gig failed was not the plan, so much as the exquisite insurance should the actual plan fail.

We’ll still have to wait and see — again, Stripling and Manaea were signed as starters — but for now the Giants seem to be all-in on Hicks as a starter. We no longer have to rely on tweets from national reporters: now we can take the Giants at their word.

San Francisco officially announced Hicks on Thursday, and with it the financial details: he’ll make $6 million this year, with a $40,000 donation to the Giants Community Fund, and in each of the next three years he’ll receive $12 million with a $60,000 donation. There’s a $2 million signing bonus, and incentives in all four years that can reach up to $2 million per year, all for innings pitched — starting at 100 innings.

But more importantly, President of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi had his first chance to speak publicly about the move, and made it pretty clear that the organization is interested in Hicks in large part because they believe he can start.

“We view Jordan as a starter — a conventional starter, not in some hybrid role. And we believe that he can do it,” Zaidi said at Hicks’ introductory presser, before stressing that, despite past usage, the team is striving to have a more traditional rotation. “When I look at our — not just obviously Webby, who kind of sets the standard, led the league in innings pitched last year — but our other young pitchers, like Keaton Winn and Kyle Harrison, those are guys that we want to see pitch deep into games, throw as many innings as they can this year ... we want the rotation to be sort of a driver of stability for us, we want those guys to go deep ... we know that the less of a workload the bullpen has, the better it’s gonna be for the team.”

While some have dismissed Hicks’ short and unsuccessful stint in the St. Louis Cardinals rotation in 2022 as being too small of a sample to draw conclusions from, Hicks offered a different explanation. “2022 was my first season back after almost two-and-a-half years,” the Giants new pitcher said, after pointing out that an injury ended his 2019 season in June, he opted out of the 2020 season, and only pitched 10 innings in 2021. “Kind of got the late call to be a starter, that’s the opportunity I had ... I think I never got the full starting opportunity, especially in the big leagues, and I’m more excited because my last two starts that I remember as a starter in the Minors, was like 7.2 innings and eight, with like nine punchies, 100 pitch count. That’s what I want to get back to, and I feel like I was trending in such a good direction, and then I kind of just got thrown in the bullpen, which it worked out.”

Hicks’ memory isn’t entirely accurate, but it’s close enough. His final two starts with the Cardinals’ A-Ball affiliate, in 2017, lasted 7.1 innings and eight innings, with seven and nine strikeouts, respectively, and an average of 100 pitches. He then was promoted to the organization’s High-A affiliate, where his starts sat in the five-inning range, before a late season move to the bullpen as St. Louis prepared to potentially use him in the Majors. He didn’t debut that year, but broke 2018 with the Cardinals as a core part of their bullpen, appearing in 73 games. The shift to relief seemed to reflect St. Louis’ needs more than Hicks’ skillset.

He also pointed to the four-seam fastball that he incorporated during the 2023 season which, not coincidentally, was the best of his career. Hicks noted that it’s his first time carrying that pitch into the offseason, and that between that pitch and getting to build up his arm in anticipation of a starting role, he’ll feel comfortable as a starter, saying, “I get to go in more prepared, go in with more confidence in the situation, and I’m just really excited to get that, and I’m really appreciative.”

Performance can always change plans, but it’s abundantly clear that the Giants view this differently than when they planned to start Manaea and Stripling; and much differently than when they pronounced that they hoped David Villar could run with a full-time job at third base. It’s certainly a different feel when numbers are attached, as was the case when the Giants said Hicks will be stretched out to around five innings and 75 pitches at the start of the season.

Perhaps Hicks, who admitted that he’ll likely have to tone his fastball down from well in the 100s to the high 90s, will struggle in the new role, and the Giants will cash in on that insurance check and move him next to Camilo Doval in the bullpen. But for now he is not a gimmick, not a hybrid, not an opener, and not a temporary plan; he’s a starting pitcher.