SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Madison Bumgarner has the same memory as many of the Giants who checked into spring training Monday morning. On his first ever day in big league camp, eight years ago, Bumgarner met Matt Cain.
“He made a point of coming up to me to speak,” Bumgarner recalled.
That’s been Cain’s role for the better part of a decade. He is the longest-tenured Giant, and these days that means a bit more than it used to. Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez have retired. Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla have moved on, along with stalwarts like Gregor Blanco and Angel Pagan. Cain is the ultimate veteran in a clubhouse full of relative newcomers and prospects, but the 32-year-old also finds himself in a spot not often reserved for pitchers heading for Year 13.
It’s no secret that Cain has to compete for his job this spring, and while he’s the frontrunner for the fifth starter spot, Cain will find tough competition in youngsters like Ty Blach and Tyler Beede, as well as holdovers such as Albert Suarez.
“Good. That’s good,” Cain said Monday. “Let’s go with it. That’s a good competition. Let’s all compete for it. That’s fine with me.”
Cain already has a leg up, and not just because he has made 308 starts in orange and black. It’s hard to get a true read on ability in Arizona, where breaking balls often don’t break and Double-A kids stroll to the plate intent on hacking. Cain won’t need to post a 2.50 ERA this spring, he’ll simply need to prove that he’s healthy and he can command the ball. In that respect, he’s off to a good start.
“The biggest thing is having a normal spring,” he said. “I haven’t had that the last couple of years.”
Cain isn't coming off elbow surgery this time around. He is not dealing with a cyst on his pitching arm, either. He had a normal offseason, traveling with his family and starting a throwing program in December. He didn’t go back and watch film of his 2016 starts because he didn’t need to. The numbers — a 5.64 ERA in 21 appearances — speak for themselves, but Cain was able to find positives in certain outings. His fastball velocity was generally fine, and there were innings and stretches of starts where he felt like his old self. Then it would unravel.
“It’s all there, everything is still there,” he said of his repertoire. “It’s just about not having the huge waves that I had last year. It was really good moments and really terrible moments.”
At FanFest on Saturday, pitching coach Dave Righetti said he feels Cain can still get through a lineup twice and often a third time, noting that he just needs to clear a hurdle that’s keeping him from getting deep into games. And if not, that’s fine too, Righetti said.
The Giants will more often than not take five-and-dive if that’s the best case scenario. They have a deep rotation, with four guys at the front end who expect to sail past 200 innings. Cain, as always, has that same goal, but the Giants are realistic after a series of down years. They are also at times hopeful.
“In a perfect world, Matt Cain would be Matt Cain and he would take that spot,” general manager Bobby Evans said recently.
That’s the expectation Cain has for himself. He shied away from talk about his future on Monday, saying this being the final guaranteed year of his contract “doesn’t matter.” He’s not thinking of following Affeldt and Lopez or about the possibility that his final years in the big leagues might be spent in a much different role.
“The bullpen is always a possibility for anyone,” Cain said, “But that’s not where I plan on being.”