How Giants could fill Madison Bumgarner-sized hole in starting rotation

How Giants could fill Madison Bumgarner-sized hole in starting rotation

Ty Blach had a 4.56 ERA in his Giants career, but the record books at Oracle Park will always show that he was the organization's Opening Day starter in 2018. Blach filled in against the Dodgers when Madison Bumgarner got hit by a line drive in his final appearance of the spring, but in every other season since 2014, Bumgarner threw the first pitch.

That'll change in 2020. Bumgarner should take the ball on March 26 and kick off the Diamondbacks' season against the Braves. The Giants might turn to Jeff Samardzija, who had a strong 2019, or Johnny Cueto, their current ace if he's fully healthy. Or, both of those guys could be gone, too.

With Bumgarner now with a division rival, the Giants have more uncertainty in their rotation than they've had in at least a decade. Samardzija and Cueto should provide consistency, and the Giants are excited about Cueto's recovery from Tommy John surgery, but both could also serve as trade chips. 

Samardzija, who has just $18 million left on his deal, could be particularly appealing to bidders in a market that has seen all the big names sign already. Cole Hamels got the same amount from the Braves earlier this offseason, and the Giants could find suitors with teams like the Angels, Blue Jays and Twins still needing veteran rotation help. 

Bumgarner and Hyun-Jin Ryu stood as the best starters left on the market, and the Giants are unlikely to find appealing options if they turn to free agency. You can expect them to be opportunistic, as they were with Drew Pomeranz last January and a bunch of veteran hitters in February, so perhaps they'll find a veteran eager to rebuild his value at spacious Oracle Park. But Ryu makes no sense for their current timetable and neither does any other starter looking for multiple years. 

Kevin Gausman signed a one-year, $9 million deal and currently is headed for a rotation spot. Left-hander Tyler Anderson may be in the same boat if he fully recovers from knee surgery. It would be a boost for the Giants if one or both of them found new life and became a trade chip by the summer. 

Beyond that, the group is young. Tyler Beede and Logan Webb should enter the spring as favorites for rotation jobs, but Webb will be on an innings limit and the Giants might prefer to slow-play him early in the season. It seems like Dereck Rodriguez has been around for years, but he's still just a third-year player and might benefit from a change in the coaching staff. The old one viewed him as a swingman. 

Shaun Anderson will come to camp as a starter, but is likely to end up in the bullpen by the end of March and could even be the closer. Ditto for Andrew Suarez and Conner Menez, who provide a different look as left-handers but are more depth pieces than members of the Opening Day rotation. 

[RELATED: Memory lane: Bumgarner's best moments in Giants career]

Long term, the Giants have high hopes for Sean Hjelle and Seth Corry. Hjelle, 22, blew through two A-ball levels before taking some lumps in five Double-A starts. He could be an option late in the year as the Giants audition players for 2021. Corry, 21, might be the current Giants prospect most likely to remind the fans of the old days. He had a 1.76 ERA in Low-A and struck out 172 batters in 122 2/3 innings. The left-hander is one of the more exciting prospects in the system, but he won't be an option for a 2020 team that all of a sudden has a huge hole to fill in the rotation. 

Farhan Zaidi explains worst-case scenario of calling Joey Bart up early

Farhan Zaidi explains worst-case scenario of calling Joey Bart up early

Farhan Zaidi hears your rallying cries begging for the Giants call up Joey Bart.

What's there to lose, right? Well, the Giants' president of baseball operations believes there's a lot to lose, and is doing everything in his power to make sure Bart's transition to the big leagues is as smooth as possible

"What we have to lose is putting Joey Bart on a career path that doesn't allow him to get the most out of his ability," Zaidi recently said to the San Francisco Chronicle's John Shea on the "Giants Splash" podcast. "What we have to lose is calling him up, maybe a little too early, having him struggle, having that impact his confidence and that's the last thing we want to do.

"Frankly, we'd rather be a little late on calling him up than a little early on calling him up." 

Bart, 23, is considered the second-best catching prospect in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. The No. 2 overall pick in the 2020 MLB Draft hit .278 with 16 home runs last season between Single-A San Jose and Double-A Richmond. He also missed multiple weeks after fracturing his left hand and then fractured his right thumb early on in the Arizona Fall League.

When Zaidi was the Los Angeles Dodgers' general manager, he faced similar decisions with calling up top prospects like Cody Bellinger and Corey Seager. Bellinger was just 21 years old when he made his MLB debut against the Giants in April 2017. Seager also was just 21 when he debuted in September 2015. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

But Bellinger had 399 at-bats in Double-A and 78 more in Triple-A before he reached the big leagues. Seager had 228 in Double-A and 421 in Triple-A. Bart hasn't played a single game in Triple-A and only has 79 at-bats in Double-A. 

The goal is to make sure Bart follows a similar path as Bellinger and Seager. Bellinger won the NL MVP in just his third big league season. Seager won NL Rookie of the Year and already has been named to two All-Star Games. Those kind of accolades certainly are what Zaidi and Co. envision for Bart. 

With no minor league season this year, Bart is training at the Giants' alternate site in Sacramento. There, he's learning how to play first base and working on very specific aspects of his overall game. He isn't able to play in full games right now, but Zaidi believes he still is able to grow as a player. 

[RELATED: Zaidi, Giants reach key milestone with latest prospect trade]

"I still view him as getting important reps, because he's facing good pitching in Sacramento," Zaidi said. "We've got guys like Dereck Rodriguez and Andrew Suarez -- those guys are with the taxi squad right now -- but he had the opportunity to face those guys, as well as other guys who are Triple-A, big league pitchers.

"I think those are valuable reps." 

The Giants don't view Bart as someone who will just help them one day. They know he has superstar potential. And sometimes, that comes with a frustrating amount of patience.

How Giants' Austin Slater made adjustment to show early signs of breakout

How Giants' Austin Slater made adjustment to show early signs of breakout

For seven innings Monday night, the Giants were playing their worst game of the season. There was very little to be positive about, but in those final two frames, Austin Slater took a couple of swings that at least guaranteed the coaching staff would sleep a bit easier. 

Slater homered in the eighth and then kept the rally going with a single in the ninth. Both hits came off right-handed pitchers. Both went to right field. They had launch angles of 28 and 29 degrees, respectively. 

Slater has worked hard since debuting in 2017 to get the ball in the air more and take advantage of his natural strength, and he might finally be seeing consistent results. At the end of his Zoom press conference after a 6-4 loss, manager Gabe Kapler took some time to credit Slater for his pre-game work.

"When a player trains for the outcome that he had tonight, which is a home run to right-center field off a righty, I think it's worth noting," Kapler said. "Today in his batting practice session out on the field, we had the machine set up from an arm angle on the right side of a pitcher firing him fastballs. We were watching him in BP training for that moment, driving balls into the opposite field. 

"So when that practice session shows up into the game and rewards a player for that kind of high-level training and effort, I think it's worth noting. It's a good example for all of us to train at that speed and in a way that's pretty uncomfortable, and we can see the results translating."

Slater has three homers in the past three games, including two off Clayton Kershaw. He became the first Giant to homer off Kershaw twice in a game, but the shot off Josh James on Monday might have been more important to his development. 

The Giants know Slater sees lefties well. He's their leadoff hitter against them. But to avoid being a strict platoon piece, he'll have to do much better than his .238 average and .303 slugging percentage against righties last year. It's a very small sample, but Slater has five hits -- including that homer and a triple -- in 18 at-bats against right-handed pitching this season. He is doing damage against both, and doing it by driving the ball more. 

Slater's launch angle his first three seasons ranged from 1.6 percent to 3.4, with many of his hits coming on hard grounders through holes on the right side. He still doesn't pull the ball much, but this season that launch angle is 8.7 percent. He ranks 23rd in the big leagues and leads the Giants in percentage of batted balls that are barreled. 

The tools have always been there for Slater to be a good big league outfielder. He can play all three spots, has a strong arm, is a plus runner (he has four stolen bases already this year), and has a good approach at the plate. The biggest adjustment was driving the ball in the air, and early on, the signs are positive. 

[RELATED: Zaidi targeted Solano since Dodger days]

After taking Kershaw to dead-center twice on Saturday, Slater said it's been nice to see results. But he knew the work wasn't anywhere close to done. 

"That's still going to be an intention of mine, trying to get the ball in the air as much as possible," he said. 

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]