Farhan Zaidi made a splash two years ago at his first Winter Meetings when he told a small group of reporters that he liked the opener strategy and intended to use it in San Francisco. For all the headlines that came out of that, and angst from traditionalists on Twitter, the Giants ultimately ended up having a reliever start a game just once in 2019.
As they prepared for the first season after Bruce Bochy, members of the staff again started talking about openers. But months later, they plan to find themselves shooting right past that new strategy and even further into modern methods for handling a pitching staff.
This is not speculation. This is not preparing a fan base for the unfamiliarity of a new strategy. This is simply the reality in a 60-game season after a three-month layoff, and manager Gabe Kapler has been blunt in discussing it.
"It's not going to look like our normal opening series where you might have three starters go out one, two, three, all of them capable of taking down six innings and 85, 90, 100 pitches," Kapler said earlier this week. "There's no chance of that happening, and we just have to set the expectation reasonably."
As the Giants prepare to welcome pitchers and catchers back to Oracle Park on Wednesday, they're still not fully certain what the expectation should be. Kapler said there's a high likelihood that when the Giants break camp their starting pitchers are only prepared to throw three innings the first time out, but a few minutes later he added that the staff won't really know what they're dealing with until they get players back in the fold and see how stretched out they are and what their current level of intensity is.
The Giants have been tracking all of that since hitting the pause button on the season in March. They know what every single one of their pitchers has been doing from a workload standpoint over the last three months, but it's hard to replicate digging in against a hitter and feeling your adrenaline spike. Early on in shelter-in-place, young starter Logan Webb said he was trying to trick his body with coffee and Red Bull. Trevor Gott has been posting videos of live BP sessions and Johnny Cueto recently posted a spirited back-and-forth inning with former Giant Eduardo Nuñez in the Dominican Republic.
"As you've probably seen from Johnny Cueto's Instagram, he's had plenty of live BPs," Kapler said, smiling.
Cueto has stayed in regular-season shape, but as he headed back home in March, his longest spring outing had been just 2 2/3 innings. Jeff Samardzija topped out at 3 2/3, Kevin Gausman at three, and Drew Smyly at two. They all may be able to face the A's once in an exhibition, but that's it before Opening Day.
"I think the strategy to start the season is going to be around allocating innings to a number of pitchers and not really thinking about them necessarily as starters," Kapler said. "You're going to see Johnny Cueto start games for us, you're going to see Jeff Samardzija start games for us, you'll see Smyly and Gausman start games for us.
"But there's going to be pitchers who come in behind those guys to support them in longer stretches than you might be used to."
You might have noticed that Kapler only listed four starters. Tyler Beede, their fifth, had Tommy John surgery during the hiatus, with Webb -- who no longer has to worry about a staff-imposed innings limit -- and Tyler Anderson now standing as strong candidates to join the previous four.
Or, perhaps, it'll be both.
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While the Giants will use openers, the most common term fans hear might actually be "piggybacking starters." It's done in the minors quite often, and even before the coronavirus pandemic hit the Giants were building a staff where the strategy could be deployed. In essence, they would be asking, say, Webb, a hard-throwing righty to start a game and pitch the first three innings. A lefty like Anderson or Andrew Suarez could follow him and provide a totally different look for three innings.
In a perfect world, you're now still through six innings with the lead, and you've just used two pitchers instead of one. Kapler may have to piggyback all his starters the first time through the rotation, and possibly longer, meaning versatility and durability will be key as guys fight for jobs.
Shaun Anderson, a former starter who was optioned to Triple-A in March, now makes a lot more sense for the roster. Suarez and Dereck Rodriguez, both former starters, look like good fits. Trevor Cahill, Andrew Triggs, Trevor Oaks and other non-roster invitees with past starting experience are right in the mix for bullpen spots.
The organization has put together a creative coaching staff, backed by a front office known for ingenuity. You can bet they're cooking up some other methods that haven't traditionally been seen, hoping to further close the gap with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Four months ago, the Giants were looking at the top of their division and seeing a team that already had Clayton Kershaw, Walker Buehler, Julio Urias and a collection of good pitching prospects before adding David Price and Alex Wood.
That was a rotation the Giants couldn't compete with over 162 games. But in 2020, perhaps a strong five-man rotation won't make that much of a difference. The teams that are left standing at the end of September might be the ones who did the best job of allocating innings.
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