For a few years, the San Francisco Giants have had a solid rotation.
The same arms have propelled the Giants to lots of success, as Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Barry Zito have led a superb rotation. Giants fans have grown accustomed to seeing the same arms in their rotation, as Lincecum, Bumgarner, Zito and Cain have all been on the team's major league roster since 2010.
However, in 2014, that could be different.
Lincecum, Zito and Ryan Vogelsong are all impending free agents, and the Giants aren't going to retain all three. They don't have enough cap space to fill their holes in the outfield and sign all three pitchers.
So, it's safe to assume that at least one of the starters in the Giants' initial 2013 rotation will be playing elsewhere next season. Lincecum is the most likely to depart, as he doesn't have great numbers this season but will still command a high salary for his past success and recent no-hitter. In addition, he could be traded at the 2013 MLB trade deadline.
Zito won't be dealt at the trade deadline, and he likely won't be re-signed. The Giants won't want to pick up his $18 million club option, and after his 2013 struggles, they likely won't want to re-sign him.
He has a 4.92 ERA this season, and he doesn't have a single sub-4.00 ERA season in his seven-year tenure with the Giants. Zito came through in the 2012 postseason, but the Giants don't want him and his appalling 1.67 WHIP back.
Vogelsong will likely return, as he was consistent in 2011 and 2012 and appeared to be on the brink of hitting his stride this year before suffering a hand injury on May 20. If he bounces back from his injury, he will certainly be back in San Francisco for at least one more year.
How many of San Francisco's free-agent starters will return?
If Vogelsong's club option is picked up and Zito and Lincecum don't remain with the team (which is likely), the Giants will have some open slots in the rotation. Unfortunately for them, they may have a hard time filling those slots.
Two of those slots will be filled easily, as Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner are locked up for 2014. The two will both don the orange and black for many more years, which solidifies the top of the rotation. However, it doesn't solve the problems present at the bottom of the rotation.
Chad Gaudin has solved those problems this year, but he is an impending free agent who will command a good amount of money on the free-agent market for his stellar performance. He has done very well this year, as he has a 2.77 ERA overall and a 3.48 ERA as a starter.
However, before this season, Gaudin had a 4.72 ERA as a starter. His most recent start was horrible, and he is very likely to revert back to his old self in the second half of the season. If he can't continue to pitch as well as he has been pitching, he may be probably be donning a different uniform next year.
If that happens, the Giants would have to look elsewhere to fill their final two spots.
The farm system is not the place to look, as the Giants don't have major league-ready talent. Eric Surkamp and Michael Kickham both have great stuff, and both have the potential to be solid starters down the line.
However, 2014 is not down the line.
Surkamp and Kickham have combined for an appalling 12.84 ERA this season, as they both have had major location issues. The two have combined to give up 3.54 home runs per nine innings, which is absolutely terrible. To fix their location issues and to become major league-ready, the two will need to be in the minor leagues for longer.
In other words, neither should be in San Francisco's initial 2014 rotation.
Will the Giants land a free-agent starter?
The Giants will have to look on the free-agent market to fill out the rotation. Luckily for them, Ervin Santana, Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, Phil Hughes, A.J. Burnett and other notable arms will be available on the market.
However, San Francisco likely won't be able to sign two of those starters, as it also has to solve its outfield woes. Right fielder Hunter Pence is going to be a free agent, and the Giants will have to re-sign or replace him. In addition, the Giants will likely pursue a left fielder to replace Gregor Blanco, who is best as a fourth outfielder.
Shin-Soo Choo or Jacoby Ellsbury could both replace Pence, and it's likely that the Giants sign either one of the two or Pence. Lack of financial flexibility might make the Giants unable to sign two top-notch outfielders, but at least one needs to be signed. Angel Pagan is the only Giants outfielder who will definitely start next season.
While the Giants probably won't add two more definite starters, they will definitely pursue a lot of outfielders and try to sign at least one. If the Giants do sign Choo, Pence, Ellsbury or another notable, they would have to fork over a lot of money.
And that would definitely limit their options elsewhere.
It's extremely unlikely that the Giants land three big fish on the free-agent market, as they usually shy away from big-name free agents and don't have the money to lure in some of the top prizes on the market. However, the Giants should, and absolutely must, sign at least one starter.
Unfortunately for them, they will likely be coming off of a losing season. The team is 46-58 and has looked absolutely horrible this season, and free agents may not want to come to San Francisco. Sure, AT&T Park is great for pitchers, but the Giants may lose out on some big names to a team with more talent and more money.
In other words, the Giants may have a bit of trouble luring in free agents. And, if they can't attract solid pitchers to San Francisco, they will falter in 2014.
The Giants may end up keeping Gaudin, who has done a nice job this season, in their plans as a backup option. While it's highly unlikely that he keeps up this level of performance in 2014, he is a serviceable fifth starter.
Will one of the Giants' top prospects pitch in 2014?
Gaudin is clearly a better short-term starter than both Surkamp and Kickham, as neither are serviceable starters yet. Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn, Edwin Escobar and other top-tier prospects will likely blossom into more than serviceable starters, but none of them will be ready for Opening Day next season.
Surkamp and Kickham are their only major league-ready options, and the two have let the Giants down this year. And both would continue to let the Giants down if they are forced into the rotation.
If the Giants don't make a splash in free agency, they will pay. They will likely have three pitchers locked up, and they will need to be active to reel in their other two.
Luckily for the team, ESPN listed it as the sixth-wealthiest team at the start of this season. However, the team may not have as money to work with next offseason, as ticket sales may go down due to the team's poor play. In addition, the Giants will have to pay Buster Posey a lot more money in 2014.
If the Giants can continue to generate revenue, they will be able to sign some big-name free agents. If they try to coax Kuroda, Hughes, Burnett, Garza and other pitchers, they will likely land at least one player.
The Giants will likely sign one pitcher (probably Hughes or Santana) and sign Gaudin to fill out the rotation for the first half of the season. If the team is in contention, it would likely trade for another starter and move Gaudin to the bullpen, and if not, it would keep Gaudin for the remainder of the year.
The Giants need to look outside the organization to fill out their 2014 rotation, and they need to succeed on the open market. Their 2013 season has gone up in flames, and their future is up in the air. Their 2013 offseason will determine how their future goes.
And if the Giants don't thrive in the offseason, their 2014 championship hopes and potentially their future title hopes would be severely damaged.