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Why Giants continue to focus on building rotation depth

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The math used to be so easy for a rotation. You would enter camp with five guys and a preferred sixth starter, hoping to get at least 200 innings from your ace and another pitcher or two. The rest would be filled in over the course of the season. 

Times have changed, and not just because front offices much rather would use openers than subpar workhorses at the back of their rotations and limit the number of times even their best starters will be exposed to an opposing lineup. The shortened 2020 season has thrown the numbers out of whack, and the Giants are responding by rethinking what a five-man rotation means.

When the Giants signed Aaron Sanchez last weekend, it seemed they had their five starters. But president of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi didn't want to think of it that way. 

"We're trying to focus more on what are reasonable workloads to get out of all these guys over the course of the full season and seeing if we can kind of do the math to get up to 162 games," Zaidi said. "That's going to be a challenge for every team in baseball this year." 

It's going to be one that's ever-evolving. The Giants are confident they have put together a high-upside group, with Sanchez, one of the game's best pitchers in 2016, joining Kevin Gausman, Johnny Cueto, Anthony DeSclafani and Alex Wood. But they also know it's doubtful the group stays intact for months at a time. 

 

Sanchez is being slow-played right now as he gets acclimated in his return from shoulder surgery. Injuries limited Wood to just nine starts over the past two seasons, and ineffectiveness knocked DeSclafani out of Cincinnati's rotation late last season. Cueto had the National League's worst ERA last season and won't have as long a leash this year, the final one of his six-year contract. 

There are no injury or performance questions about Gausman, who was throwing 97 mph in his first live BP session and has coaches and teammates raving, but he threw just 102 1/3 innings in 2019 and 59 2/3 last season. The Giants will watch him closely, although manager Gabe Kapler said he'll extend the leash when warranted this season.

While the entire staff will be involved in charting out weekly and monthly rotations and working around off days -- the Giants have three in the season's first 15 days and technically don't need a fifth starter early on -- and injury concerns, it'll be Kapler who makes the snap decisions during games. Last season, that didn't always go well. Cueto and Gausman grumbled about their usage the first week of the season, and Kapler took heat for pulling Gausman after just 80 pitches in an August game at Dodger Stadium that the bullpen would blow. 

Asked if he would have to watch his starters even more closely this season with the schedule going back to 162 games, Kapler said he actually plans to "loosen the reins up" a bit and rely less on pre-game decisions about pitch counts or how many times a pitcher can get through a lineup. 

"I think we're going to be pretty trusting of our eyes," Kapler said. 

After games, Kapler plans to take "a holistic view," mentioning player health, self-reporting on how they're feeling and objective data as factors that will play into how he handles starters over a 162-game season. The Giants have talked internally of using a six-man rotation at times if necessary and also continue to view openers as a good way to soak up innings. No matter what they decide, they'll have plenty of options. 

With the addition of Scott Kazmir -- which hasn't become official yet -- the Giants will have 20 non-roster pitchers in camp, nearly half of whom have starting experience. They could have multiple Trevor Cahill-like swingmen in their bullpen, with Shun Yamaguchi and Nick Tropeano standing out as two who could get an early look. 

Logan Webb is waiting behind the five veteran starters and Tyler Beede could be an option by the end of May. Caleb Baragar, a starter in the minors, is being stretched back out after an intriguing debut as a reliever. Lefties Conner Menez and Anthony Banda will be waiting in Triple-A. The Giants have four young right-handers -- Sean Hjelle, Tristan Beck, Matt Frisbee and Kei-Wei Teng -- in camp and Zaidi has said he anticipates someone from that group being an option late in the year. 

 
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The Giants used seven starters and an opener last season, and in 2019 they had 11 different pitchers take a turn in the rotation. It's just about a lock they hit double-digits again as they try and work their way through 1,500 innings. It'll be a season-long puzzle and figuring it out will determine how long the 2021 team stays competitive. For now, the Giants are excited about the first five pieces they'll put in place. 

"I think they all have the ability to make their way through a lineup a few times and they can give guys different looks," catcher Buster Posey said. "They all have great stuff. They're guys that obviously have some experience. They're still hungry to prove themselves and get better."

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