San Francisco Giants Spring Preview: The Rotation

As Julie Andrews once sang amidst the picturesque mountains of Salzburg, I simply remember my favourite things, and then I don’t feeeeeeeel so baaaaaaad.

And with that optimistic approach firmly in mind, I bring you our San Francisco Giants spring preview.

Sure, those teams from San Diego and Los Angeles look like total monsters, and that was before Trevor Bauer and his cronies arrived in Dodgers camp. The NL West is set to be a veritable gauntlet of pain and suffering this season for fans of the Giants, Rockies and Diamondbacks.

That is what the experts and critics would have you believe anyway. However, if I remain positive and channel my inner Julie Andrews, I can remember my favourite things about these Giants, and this 2021 season doesn’t have to look so bad after all.

Today we’re looking at the rotation, and who is expected to feature in that group.

It’s a well known fact that the quality and depth of a team’s starting pitching corps will determine the success or failure of every ballclub. This particularly applies to the 2021 Giants’ rotation. A lot will need to go right for the Giants’ staff to reap the fruits of their labour, to see the benefits of their meticulous scouting and planning this offseason.

San Francisco’s Opening Day rotation is expected to look dramatically different from the 2020 group, with just two, possibly three returning players.

The ace of the staff will be Kevin Gausman, after the 30-year-old accepted the one-year, $18.9 million qualifying offer to return to the Giants. Gausman enjoyed a renaissance in 2020 and found himself rejuvenated once he linked up with the Giants’ pitching coaches/wizards. He combined his devastating splitter with a mid-to-upper 90s fastball on his way to a 3.62 ERA, 3.09 FIP and an impressive 11.92 K/9 rate, per Fangraphs (79 strikeouts in 59 ⅔ innings). The Giants are certainly relying on Gausman to deliver that level of consistency once again, this time over a full season.

The middle of the rotation will likely consist of Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani, and Alex Wood. All three come with their share of health and performance concerns. However, allow me to delve deeper into what the Giants see in these pitchers and why there is optimism this trio can surprise their critics and contribute in 2021.

Cueto is set to be a free agent at the end of this season so will have extra incentive to perform well. Watching him in 2020 could be a mystifying experience; I would marvel at his shimmy, teasing hitters, baiting them into easy swing-and-misses. You could look up the term ‘cruise control’ in the dictionary and you’d see a stylish photo of Cueto on the mound. I’d leave the room for a minute, only to return and find Cueto had been stung for three runs and the game was suddenly beyond reach. But he was cruising?! His 5.40 ERA over 12 starts indicated that wasn’t the case and my eyes had deceived me.

The 35-year-old had his workload managed conservatively last year, as his 2018 Tommy John surgery was still fresh in his manager’s mind. Cueto has made it a priority to pitch more this season and the Giants will relish the opportunity to let Cueto pitch deeper into games. His changeup will be a key factor in this; in 2020 his opponents hit just .125 when Cueto threw the change, with a whiff percentage of 32.4%, per Baseball Savant. Unfortunately, hitters teed off on his fastball with a .353 average, so Cueto’s offspeed pitches, particularly that nasty changeup, will be key to his success this year.

DeSclafani is a new addition to the Giants, after signing a one-year deal for $6 million in December. The 30-year-old right-handed starter is coming off an injury ravaged 2020, when a preseason training camp strain in his upper back played havoc with his mechanics all season. DeSclafani was limited to just seven starts with the Reds, and two relief appearances, for a 7.22 ERA.

The Giants are willing to see that for the small-sample blip it almost certainly is and focus on what a healthy DeSclafani can bring to the Bay Area. His 2019 results are a far better indicator of the solid mid-rotation presence DeSclafani can offer; 31 starts, 166 ⅔ innings and a 3.89 ERA.

Let’s also factor in the change of scenery. Great American Ball Park is notorious for being a hitter’s haven whereas San Francisco’s Oracle Park is traditionally the opposite, which will please DeSclafani immensely. Throughout his career, he has thrown almost the same number of innings in Cincinnati as he has on the road, but given up 59 home runs at home compared to just 38 in visiting ballparks, per Baseball Reference. You can bet DeSclafani will be counting down the days when he gets to dress in the home whites.

Wood, the former Dodger, linked up with the rival Giants on a one-year, $3 million contract. Another pitcher looking to rebound from lost time and lost opportunities that were linked to health issues, the left-handed Wood is arguably the most exciting, albeit unconventional, addition to the rotation.

Limited to just 16 appearances (nine starts) and 48 ⅓ innings over the past two seasons thanks to back and shoulder issues, the 30-year-old Wood ended 2020 on a high. Used out of the bullpen by LA, Wood threw two perfect innings against Tampa Bay in Game Six of the World Series to help the Dodgers win it all. That’s the last time we’ll discuss that, I assure you. Wood joins the Giants fresh off this success, and ready to stick it to his former team now he’ll be representing the orange and black.

Wood doesn’t rely on high velocity stuff but offers deception and “funk,” as Farhan Zaidi, President of Baseball Operations, recently described it. His fastball and preferred sinker won’t go higher than 91mph on a good day, but his changeup and curveball are enough to keep hitters off balance. They’ll pound balls into the dirt, toward the waiting and grateful arms of the Giants infield; Wood has a career ground ball percentage of 48.8%.

Finally, perhaps the most intriguing spring training battle in Giants camp will focus on the fifth spot in the rotation. The leading candidates are Aaron Sanchez and Logan Webb, but outsiders Caleb Baragar and Nick Tropeano are also being considered. For the sake of the word count and my reader’s attention span, we’ll focus on Sanchez and Webb, as they have the edge on this battle.

Let’s begin with Sanchez, the new addition. Signed to a one-year contract for $4 million, the 28-year-old right-hander is expected to use his experience and rediscovered velocity to win the final spot in the rotation. Sanchez’s recent Miami showcase displayed he was healthy once more after right shoulder surgery kept him out of the 2020 season. He honestly looked great, touching 98mph on his fastball, and the Giants saw all they needed to give him a chance at contributing to the ballclub this year.

There’s cause to be optimistic Sanchez can find the sort of form that made him an All-Star in 2016, when he threw 192 innings for the Blue Jays, for a 3.00 ERA, the best in the American League. A huge part of the appeal in joining San Francisco was linking up with the Giants’ pitching coaches, who might have exactly what Sanchez needs to rejoin the top arms in the game.

If Sanchez has a hot spring, it likely pushes Webb out of the rotation pecking order. However, let’s not discount the 24-year-old and the impact he could have for the Giants this season.

Webb has shown flashes of the talent he possesses over two years in San Francisco, since being selected in the fourth round of the 2014 MLB draft. Despite some moments of brilliance (my mind recalls a seven-inning gem against Arizona last year), Webb’s consistency has eluded him so far in his young career. My gut feeling is Webb will need to out-pitch Sanchez in spring training to secure his place on the Opening Day roster, but a stint in Triple-A Sacramento looks a more likely destination.

Ultimately, the Giants have assembled a veteran group of starting pitchers at low cost that could yield huge rewards. Their strategy is not without a large degree of risk of course, specifically when it comes to keeping this group healthy.

If injuries do strike then the Giants possess an intriguing mixture of depth options they can call upon. In addition to Webb slotting in seamlessly, Tyler Beede is expected to be in contention by May after returning from Tommy John surgery, but also Tropeano and Baragar. Conner Menez, Shun Yamaguchi, and prospect Sean Hjelle are all considered to be in the mix for 2021 action as well.

I can safely speak for all Giants fans when I say we hope the rotation can surprise a lot of doubters this year, but at least the club appears well positioned for any bumps in the road.

Not that we’re dwelling on that remember. We’re back in Salzburg, singing with Julie Andrews. Positive vibes only please.

Ash Day is covering the San Francisco Giants as part of the growing team of writers at Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on Twitter @AshDay29

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