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Questions remain for Giants' high-risk, high-reward rotation

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The Mark Melancon contract is often viewed as the one that sunk the previous Giants front office, but as the organization took a step back financially the last couple of years, a bigger problem was the spending spree after the 2015 season.

In desperate need of innings-eaters, the Giants gave $230 million to right-handers Johnny Cueto and Jeff Samardzija. While both had their highs -- Cueto was the All-Star starter in 2016 and Samardzija had three seasons above 2.5 WAR -- the Giants didn't get what they hoped for from the decisions made that offseason.

Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris have taken the complete opposite approach. In three seasons under Zaidi, the Giants haven't given a starting pitcher a multi-year deal. It's a revolving door of guys looking to set themselves up for the next big deal, which has worked out well at times, but also sets the Giants up for a potential problem in 2021. 

This week we've looked at infield and outfield groups that should be strengths. Today, the rotation, which could be a collective bargain, or the weak spot of the roster ... 

On the 40-man roster

Kevin Gausman, Johnny Cueto, Logan Webb, Anthony DeSclafani, Alex Wood, Tyler Beede, Conner Menez

Gausman signed the qualifying offer to return at $18.9 million, DeSclafani got $6 million guaranteed, and Wood took $3 million to rejoin a Zaidi squad. The three could be Gabe Kapler's top three starters this year, and like the other two listed here, you can take either side of the argument about where they're headed in 2021. 

 

Gausman had a 3.09 FIP and a career-high strikeout rate in the shortened season, and the 30-year-old seems to have settled on a great plan, attacking hitters with a mid-to-high 90s fastball and finishing them off with a split-change that was devastating last year. The Giants think he can get even better, but Gausman has to prove he can carry that production over 33 starts. He almost surely will be the opening day starter.

Cueto had the worst ERA among qualified NL starters in 2020 and there's not much in his profile that suggests that was a fluke. But ... he is another full year removed from Tommy John surgery, and there will be a bit more motivation as he goes through a contract year. 

Wood was an All-Star in 2017 and DeSclafani pitched like one for long stretches of 2019. But Wood has made just nine starts the last two years and DeSclafani had a 7.22 ERA last year. It's not hyperbole to say that as these two go, the Giants will go. If they're this year's Gausman-Smyly combo, the Giants will stay in the postseason race. If they're not, the Giants will likely finish fourth in the NL West. 

Webb had a disappointing 2020, posting a 5.47 ERA and finishing the year in the bullpen. He's still just 24, though, and the Giants remain hopeful he can be a long-term anchor for the rotation. That brings us to Beede, the wild card here. He's hitting every checkpoint in his return from Tommy John and should be an option in May. Beede was showing top-of-rotation stuff before he got hurt, but the Giants won't place too much on his shoulders this season. 

Menez threw pretty well out of the bullpen last season but was sent to the alternate site early and never returned. Right now there's not much ahead of him at Triple-A, although the Giants will add more starting depth. 

Non-roster invitees 

The Giants released a list of 11 non-roster invitees late last year that included a few Triple-A depth options. The standout is Anthony Banda, a lefty who was brought in late last season from the Rays but never left the alternate site. 

This is one area where there likely will be additions before camp opens next week or even over the following couple of weeks. There are a ton of starters still out there looking for jobs, and the Giants can offer a pretty decent spring training opportunity. Old friends Trevor Cahill and Tyler Anderson would make sense as swingmen. 

Player to watch this spring: Alex Wood

Wood has had a solid big league career and is less than four years removed from being one of the National League's best starters. He's just 30, showed good velocity in the postseason, threw really well in the World Series and has the kind of analytical approach that will be a perfect fit with Andrew Bailey, Brian Bannister and J.P. Martinez. Sounds good, right?

 

Of course, there's a reason he was available on a small incentive-filled deal in January. Injuries limited him to seven starts in 2019 with the Reds and two last year with the Dodgers. If Wood is healthy and throwing well he could be the No. 2 starter behind Gausman, so a lot of eyes will be on his bullpen sessions and Cactus League starts.  

Prospects to watch

The Giants have two catchers of the future, a bunch of high-ceiling outfielders on the way, and Marco Luciano, Will Wilson and others to fill infield spots. What they don't have a lot of is guys who can be surefire top-of-the-rotation arms when the young hitters start to arrive.

Seth Corry is the best of the bunch, and he and fellow lefty Kyle Harrison seem the two likeliest to take the leap and potentially be a homegrown ace. Corry had a 1.76 ERA in Augusta in 2019 and struck out 12.6 batters per nine, and while he wasn't at the alternate site, the Giants were thrilled with what he accomplished on his own last summer. The 22-year-old figures to spend most of this season in High-A. 

Harrison was an over-slot third-round pick and showed up in instructs topping out at 97 mph, but he hasn't thrown a minor league inning yet, so he's far from being an option. 

Right-handers Sean Hjelle and Tristan Beck are two polished starters who should be ready to debut this season. Most Giants fans know Hjelle's story by now, but Beck, acquired in the Mark Melancon deal, is someone to watch. His stuff ticked up after the trade. Nick Swiney, taken 67th overall last summer, is the other starting pitching prospect who generally ranks highly among evaluators, with Kai-Wei Teng a popular "sleeper" pick.

The Giants will always be able to attract veteran starters, but the rebuild will be a lot easier if a couple of these guys show massive improvement in 2021. 

Number to know: 63 1/3

This was Cueto's innings total from 2020, with Gausman and Anderson right behind him at 59 2/3. It's impossible to predict how veteran pitchers will react to a normal 162-game season after throwing so few innings last year, but the Giants are preparing for an increase in injuries and rest days. 

"Even the traditional 200-inning guys are coming off seasons where they threw maybe 70 innings because of the shortened year," Zaidi said last month. "I think managing workloads and making sure you have enough depth to get through the season from a pitching standpoint is going to be really important ... it's not out of the question we could add a veteran knowing that in a usual year you need nine, 10, 11 starters to get through 162 games, and that number might be higher in 2021."

 

That's before you account for the fact that Wood has had trouble staying healthy recently and Webb has never thrown more than 105 innings in a calendar year. The Giants were extremely cautious with their starters early on last year and figure to be the same way early this season, so yes, they need to add at least a couple more capable arms. 

RELATED: Giants' Luciano seen as top-10 prospect in baseball by ESPN

Opening day projection

Right now, it's Gausman on April 1 in Seattle, followed by the other four in some order. If the Giants do need to make a change, Webb stands out as a guy who can maybe be held back early in the year just because he's probably facing another innings restriction. 

The Giants have three off days in the first 15 days of the season and don't need a fifth starter until April 13, their 11th game of the year. Zaidi and Harris aren't going to let that go to waste, so expect an extra reliever those first 10 games, even if that's Webb serving in a bulk innings role.