San Francisco Giants: Spring Watch – Risky rotation

Spring is rapidly approaching, players are back in camp, and the return of Giants baseball is just around the corner. With the disappointment of the 49ers’ Super Bowl defeat now firmly in the rear-view mirror, our attention turns to Bob Melvin’s boys in orange and black.

Specifically, we’re looking at San Francisco’s rotation and the current uncertainty surrounding the group. With the recent trade of Ross Stripling to Oakland, combined with a handful of free-agent departures this winter, the 2024 rotation will look drastically different to their 2023 brethren. 

So who exactly are the Giants sending out there every fifth day?

Top of the pile is Logan Webb, the undisputed ace of the staff, who enjoyed a Cy Young-worthy year (216 IP, 3.25 ERA, 4.9 fWAR). He’ll be aiming for another stellar 200-inning season and will carry the rotation once again. It’s a heavy burden bestowed upon his young shoulders but if anyone on the team would relish leadership responsibility, it’s Webb. As the team currently stands, he’s the only established starter set to be in the dugout on Opening Day. 

That’s because Alex Cobb (151.1 IP, 3.87 ERA, 1.8 fWAR) is expected to miss a decent chunk of the new season recovering from the significant hip injury that plagued his 2023 campaign. Cobb was a first-time All-Star thanks to a terrific first half (2.91 ERA in 16 starts), but his painful hip saw him shut down 12 starts into the second half, with a 5.25 ERA over that stretch. Which version of Cobb the Giants receive upon his return is anyone’s guess, especially now he’s 36-years-old, but it already feels like the Giants have a lot riding on him returning to his best.

Beyond Webb and Cobb, the Giants appear dangerously thin on experience. With Anthony DeSclafani now in Minnesota (via Seattle), Sean Manaea signed with the Mets, and Alex Wood and Ross Stripling across the Bay in Oakland, the Giants have lost a considerable number of innings from veteran pitchers.

In their absence the Giants will invest in the youthful trio of Kyle Harrison (22), Tristan Beck (27) and Keaton Winn (25). San Francisco is bullish they can mature into full-time big league starters and could help form the core of the club’s rotation for years to come. Each man made his major-league debut last year and will now aim to demonstrate they belong at this level. 

Harrison (34.2 IP, 4.15 ERA, -0.1 fWAR) is the youngest of the group but is considered to have the highest ceiling, the future ace-to-be, whose golden left arm so much of the Giants’ success depends on. Harrison showed flashes of his immense talent but also had his share of rookie setbacks, so the Giants hope he’s learned from his mistakes and will continue developing into a potential star on the mound. 

Beck (85 IP, 3.92 ERA, 0.4 fWAR) and Winn (42.1 IP, 4.68 ERA, 0.2 fWAR) have lower expectations but can still be very valuable to this ballclub. The duo pitched in relief more often than they started last year but will aim to avoid being in the bullpen this time around, and contribute significant innings as starters. 

The enigma in the group will be Jordan Hicks (65.2 IP, 3.29 ERA, 1.1 fWAR), newly signed to the Giants in January. Hicks possesses one of the fastest arms in the game and has been known to throw 105-plus mph, but the 27-year-old right-hander has spent most of his five-year career in the bullpen. A free-agent for the first time this winter, Hicks made it known to his suitors that he wanted to start and the Giants were happy to oblige, to the tune of a four-year, $44 million contract.

The big question surrounding Hicks will be longevity and his effectiveness over time. He’s never surpassed 80 innings in any of his major-league seasons and there’s some uncertainty about how his vast repertoire of pitches will hold up over an entire year. Hicks features a wipeout slider, a splitter, a nasty sweeper, and a fastball/sinker combo that regularly touches triple digits. If Hicks can handle the workload and adjust to a starter’s routine, he could be a force in San Francisco’s rotation. 

Finally, we come to another new addition, 2021 AL Cy Young winner Robbie Ray. Acquired via trade from the Mariners in January, the left-handed veteran will miss the first half of the season as he recovers from Tommy John surgery to his left elbow. The injury limited Ray to just a single appearance in 2023, 3.1 innings of work, before he was forced to sit the entire year. 

The Giants are optimistic that Ray can play a large role after the All-Star break, if all goes well with his recovery. A starter of Ray’s quality could provide a huge boost to the Giants’ second half hopes, especially if he can tap into some of that 2021 Cy Young form (193.1 IP, 2.84 ERA, 3.9 fWAR). Should Ray return to that level, he would form a devastating one-two punch alongside Webb atop the rotation. 

Could we see the Giants add to this group? With free-agents like Blake Snell and Jordan Montgomery still unsigned at the time of writing, there is scope for San Francisco to upgrade their starting pitching. Either man would be a welcome addition; it’s surprising that a pitcher as distinguished as Snell, the 2023 NL Cy Young winner, remains on the market. A proven winner, Snell would instantly improve the Giant’s chances of snagging a postseason berth in what’s set to be a loaded National League. 

If the Giants stick with what they have in Webb, Harrison, Winn, Beck and Hicks to open the new season, I wouldn’t necessarily blame them, but they’re not exactly an overpowering bunch that inspires a tonne of confidence. 

As things stand, they’re risking a lot on the arms of relatively unproven guys. Expecting Harrison, Winn and Beck to be impactful over a full campaign feels optimistic; now I’m an optimistic glass-half-full kinda guy, but even I’m not ready to compare this group to the 1998 Braves. Adding Cobb and Ray midway through the year will certainly help but by the time they join the roster, what shape will the Giants be in?

That remains to be seen. The Giants front office have a vision for the future, they have a plan. I’m not completely convinced the fans in San Francisco share the same level of confidence.

Ash Day is the San Francisco Giants writer for Bat Flips and Nerds. Follow him on X (Twitter) @AshDay29

Photo credit for featured image by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images.

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