Giants' five-man rotation might be thing of past during short MLB season

Giants' five-man rotation might be thing of past during short MLB season

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. 

[RELATED: First look at Oracle Park's new bullpens]

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.

[GIANTS INSIDER PODCAST: Listen to the latest episode]

Jeff Samardzija's rough start to season displayed by stat, odd moment

Jeff Samardzija's rough start to season displayed by stat, odd moment

There's a stunning stat from Jeff Samardzija's first three starts that shows how much he's struggling right now, but perhaps in this case all you need is an exchange from the Giants' loss Friday night. 

When Samardzija grazed Dodgers utility man Kiké Hernandez to load the bases in the fifth inning, Hernandez insisted over and over again to the home plate umpire that he had not been hit by the pitch. It was a strange sight, and the Giants even challenged the call -- with no luck -- to try to send Hernandez back to the box, but it seems that it's not a good sign that he wanted to be there in the first place. 

The Dodgers were remarkably comfortable against Samardzija, who is coming off a solid year but has had a nightmare start to 2020. In a 7-2 win over the Giants, they were quiet the first time through the order, then busted out for three homers the second time through. 

Samardzija walked off the mound in the fifth with the bases loaded. For the third time in three starts, he was charged with five earned runs. 

"I think he had a little bit of a lack of fastball command," manager Gabe Kapler said. "This is a very difficult lineup to get through even if you're locating your pitches."

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

The Dodgers proved that with the three homers, which brings us to the stunning stat. In three starts, totaling just 13 2/3 innings, Samardzija has allowed six homers but struck out just five batters. Right now, he doesn't have the stuff or command to put hitters away. 

"Too many times we're getting these 0-2, 1-2 counts and battling for too long," he said. "We need to make sure that when we're getting them in the hole, we're finishing them. You give these big league hitters too many opportunities, they're going to take advantage of it. We've got to get them up and set them down as fast as possible."

Samardzija actually looked marginally better in the first three innings, getting six pop-ups and shallow fly balls. But those turned to homers the second time through, dropping the Giants into too large a deficit. The loss was their fifth in six games and put them five games behind the Rockies and 4 1/2 behind the loaded Dodgers after a little over two weeks of action. 

It won't get any better without a sharp turn from the starting pitchers, and the Giants don't have an obvious solution right now if Samardzija keeps struggling. Drew Smyly will be reevaluated when the road trip ends next Wednesday. Swingman Tyler Anderson already is needed for Smyly's spot. 

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The Giants will hope the stuff improves and the command returns for Samardzija, at least enough to make hitters look less comfortable than Hernandez did. 

"He didn't think it hit him," Samardzija said. "I told him it must have hit his jersey or something. They're all gamers over there, they all want to play. I respect those guys a lot. He's just being honest. It's a good quality."

Giants takeaways: What you might have missed in 7-2 loss vs. Dodgers

Giants takeaways: What you might have missed in 7-2 loss vs. Dodgers


The Giants went to great lengths to keep Jeff Samardzija from pitching at Dodger Stadium in a season-opening series. On Friday it was more clear why they did it. 

Samardzija gave up six runs -- five of them earned -- and departed in a jam in the fifth. The Giants never caught up, losing 7-2 at Dodger Stadium, where they got a split just two weeks ago. 

The Giants have dropped four of five on this long road trip, and it doesn't get any easier. They'll face Clayton Kershaw on Saturday and Walker Buehler on Sunday. Here are three things to know from a forgettable Friday ... 

Slow Start for Shark 

Samardzija's stuff looked a *bit* better, and he got six pop-ups and shallow fly balls in the first three innings. But the second time through the order, the Dodgers hit three home runs. He didn't last much longer. 

Samardzija was pulled with the bases loaded and no outs in the fifth after grazing back-to-back Dodgers (Kiké Hernandez strangely argued that he was not hit). Sam Selman helped him out, but Samardzija was still charged with five earned for the third consecutive start. 

In three starts, the veteran right-hander has allowed 15 earned runs in 13 2/3 innings. He has struck out just five of the 65 batters he has faced. This is an issue the Giants are going to have to confront. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Another One 

The Giants tacked onto their error count early when Darin Ruf couldn't handle a single to left, allowing Cody Bellinger to cruise into second. Bellinger immediately scored on Justin Turner's single. It seems like every error comes around to cost the Giants, and that was their MLB-high 18th of the year. 

It didn't go down as an error, but Donovan Solano failed to get a double play when he threw a ball into the dirt instead of to first. 

The defense has been a problem just about every night. 

[RELATED: How Yaz has turned into Giants star year after close call]

Sam to the Rescue 

How about we end with a positive? 

Selman came on with the bases loaded and Max Muncy at the plate and allowed just one run to score, then went out and pitched another scoreless frame. That was good work -- he struck out three -- and allowed the Giants to avoid getting blown out in the sixth. 

In the old days, the joke would be Samardzija needs to buy Selman a steak. Who knows what that looks like in a season dominated by quarantining. Maybe he'll order the rookie some nice room service?