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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Vogelsong, Kickham and the Million Dollar Question(s)

The Giants just finished up the first 50 games of the season and there's a lot to like, a lot to improve upon, and a lot of important questions.  

San Francisco's record stands at 28-22 and they're tied for first place with Arizona.  After losing 3 of 4 to the Rockies in Curse Field, the Giants rebounded by taking 2 of 3 against Colorado at home and knocking Denver into 2nd place.  They improved to 18-10 against the NL West and have the best intradivision record in the National League.  

However, the starting rotation remains unstable.  The Giants starters stats after a third of their season looks like this:

Cain           (4-2, 5.00 ERA, 1.19 WHIP)
Bumgarner (4-2, 2.90 ERA, 1.01 WHIP)
Lincecum   (3-4, 4.75 ERA, 1.40 WHIP)
Zito            (3-3, 4.13 ERA, 1.52 WHIP) 
Vogelsong  (2-4, 7.19 ERA, 1.73 WHIP) 

That's not pretty.  Cain has been getting better and his WHIP is fine but he had a short outing today; throwing a lot of pitches in the first two innings of what would be a 5 inning appearance.  The rest of the numbers are ugly minus Bumgarner's, who looks to be the only Giants starter that may be considered for the All Star Game in 2013.  

And then there's Vogelsong.  Vogelsong had a miserable April and May.  Finally, on a night when he looked to regain his stuff and mechanics, he broke his pitching hand swinging at a pitch while at bat.  It had to happen sometime.  The Giants starters had stayed remarkably healthy since 2010 with only a handful of starts from 2010-2012 taken by anyone other than the main rotation stalwarts.  Thankfully, Vogelsong's injury is fluky and he should rejoin the rotation sometime shortly after the All Star Break.  That being said, the important question quickly turned into who would take Vogelsong's slot in the rotation.  The contenders were Chad Gaudin, Chris Heston, Shane Loux, and Mike Kickham.  

The one that finally got the call?  LHP Mike Kickham.  

Kickham was drafted in 2010 in the 6th round and he caught the attention of prospect hounds with a solid AA campaign in 2012 (11-10, 3.05 ERA, and a 1.29 WHIP).  His 2013 campaign didn't start out all that well aside from impressing top brass in Spring Training.  However, his last 5 starts are what earned him the call up (31.1 IP, 6 ER, 29 K's, 9 BB).  Kickham has been throwing the ball well in Fresno and it became clear that Bochy did not want to move Chad Gaudin out of the bullpen.  So Kickham makes his debut against the A's after Memorial Day and as long as he throws quality innings, he should be in the rotation for the foreseeable future.  The revamped rotation will look as follows:
Cain           RHP
Bumgarner  LHP
Kickham     LHP
Lincecum   RHP
Zito            LHP

However, Vogelsong's absence highlights a couple of important things as well.  Kickham is a complete question mark at the major league level.  He is not considered a top prospect (he is the Giants #12 prospect overall) and the Giants really didn't have any better choice.  Kyle Crick remains the best prospect in the system but he's not close to the majors.  Which leads to the bigger question: What are the Giants going to do about their lack of starting pitching depth? 

If the rotation continues to struggle as a group, does GM Brian Sabean trade for a starter?  Cliff Lee is out there and the Phillies don't look to be a contender this year.  Would the Giants trade for Lee?  Do they have a package good enough to interest Philadelphia?  Hard to say at this juncture.  But Lee doesn't seem like the move Sabean would make, especially with his contract.  More realistic options that should be available via trade would be Marlins RHP Ricky Nolasco, Cubs RHP Matt Garza, and the Astros RHP Lucas Harrell, RHP Bud Norris, and LHP Erik Bedard.  Of that group, Garza is the most intriguing.  He's a free agent after this season but has ace potential when healthy; something he has not been in recent history.  Still, if the Giants are looking for a stop gap in the wake of Vogelsong's injury and Lincecum's continued struggles, they may look outside the organization for help. 

The 2nd part of this question is what do the Giants do with their rotation 2014?  Cain and Bumgarner are under contract but Lincecum, Zito, and Vogelsong could all become free agents.  Given that Vogelsong finally showed a glimpse of his old self before breaking his hand, it's highly likely the Giants pick up his 6.5M option.  Equally likely is that the Giants decline Zito's 18M option and pay him 7M to become a free agent instead.  It's possible they re-sign Zito to a (much) smaller contract even if they decline his option but it'll likely depend on his overall numbers for 2013.  Right now he's pitching okay.  As sad as it is to say, Tim Lincecum looks to be the odd man out.  Unless Timmy takes a huge pay cut, it's likely the Giants will let him sign with another team in the winter. 

The free agent starting pitching market does not have a lot of sure things in it.  A lof of good arms that have question marks.  But the truth of the matter is that the Giants could be looking to fill 3 rotation slots in the offseason.  And with their lack of pitching depth, it's hard to envision them giving two slots to young arms like Surkamp, Kickham, and Heston.  So the question becomes which starters do they keep, which do they let go, and what starters do they acquire to replace those departed?  Vogelsong's unfortunate injury has given Mike Kickham the first shot.  We will see how it plays out.  

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Giants Are Pretty Good

So we're 6 weeks into the season and the Giants stand alone in first place with a 23-15 record.  They've done it with some amazing timely hitting and solid bullpen work.  But they sure as shit haven't done it with their strength - starting pitching.

In fact, it's pretty impressive what the Giants have done thus far given the fact that Ryan Vogelsong has an ERA in the high 7's, Matt Cain has only recently gotten his ERA below 6, and that Tim Lincecum remains an enigma.  Barry Zito has been nearly untouchable at home (33 IP, 2 ER) but has been clobbered in his only 2 road starts (6.1 IP, 15 R, 10 ER).  Hopefully he can figure out how to pitch in the road grays.  And then there's our other lefty, Madison Bumgarner, who is shaping up to be the staff ace in 2013.

(Side note:  The Giants rotation is so eerily similar to that Braves rotation of the 90's, wherein each season a different ace stood above the rest.  Cain is our Maddux.  Bumgarner our Glavine.  And Lincecum our Smoltz.  Vogelsong most definitely fills the roll of Steve Avery/Kevin Millwood while Barry Zito is our Denny Neagle.)

But aside from Zito at home and Bumgarner all the time, the starting pitching has been borderline average.  Starting pitching is this team's bread and butter.  However, unexpectedly, this team has come out guns blazing offensively.  There have already been a seasons worth of late inning comebacks.  More than I can remember in the past few years alone.  Amazing 9th inning game tying homers (even if they turned into losses in the end).  This team shows a lot of fight.  It's like they came back in Cincinnati and St. Louis and determined that from henceforth they will be the Comeback Kids.  It's their new identity.  The club doesn't seem to know what to do when it has a lead.  So usually the pitchers cough it up.  It can't be a comeback if you're ahead the whole time!

Which makes this team pretty fun to watch.  The Giants believe in themselves and it's starting to rub off on their fans.  There was a time when the Giants would be down 2 runs or so in the 7th inning and Giants fans felt the game was over.  Not anymore.  The Giants are proving that their run to the title in 2012 was no fluke.  The line-up from top to bottom is strong, what with Brandon Crawford becoming a true blue hitter and Brandon Belt starting to pick it up a bit.  Pagan has been in a little slump of late but he started the season strong.  Scutaro has come on real strong after a poor April.  And Sandoval, Posey, and Pence have given the Giants a a legitimate 3-4-5 middle of the order for the first time since, well, since 2010 when they had a productive Aubrey Huff and Pat Burrell (and that Posey guy).

Romo has shown that his October heroics were no mirage as he has saved 12 of 14 opportunities.  The Giants bullpen overall has been a strength though I still feel they're missing that go to 8th inning set up guy.  Casilla gets a lot of flak from Giants fans but the truth is, more often than not, he gets the job done.  But no Giants fan feels safe when he comes in.  Same with Affeldt.  I'd prefer Affeldt and Casilla to be the 7th inning guys.  Lopez is a fantastic LOOGY.  But I feel the Giants need that elite 8th inning set up man to really firm up the club.

Of course, the starting pitching really needs to round into form as well.  Lincecum lowered his ERA to 4.07 in his victory over the Braves and he's gone 7 innings in 3 of his last 4 starts and Cain has looked improved.  Vogelsong has not yet righted the ship.  He needs to get it figured out.  The Giants offense has bailed the pitching out for most of the season thus far.  But the Giants identity IS the starting pitching and hopefully they're getting to where they need to be.

It is nice to know they've dominated their divisional rivals, going 15-6 in the NL West, and sweeping each and every divisional rival already.  That's a good sign.  And taking 3 of 4 from the Atlanta Braves is another notch in the belt.

The Giants are a good team.  As they should be.  They are the defending champs.  And 95% of that 2012 team returned.  They've been lucky to stay healthy for the most part thus far.  And the guys expected to produce in the line-up HAVE produced.  Now it's the pitchers turn.  If they come around, it could be another great summer at AT&T.