Over the last half-decade, the San Francisco Giants rose, and then fell, with their starting pitching.
From 2009-12, the Giants led baseball with a combined 3.45 rotation ERA. Not surprisingly, the Giants had a winning record in each of those four seasons, and they won the World Series in 2010 and 2012.
Entering play on Friday night, the Giants have the game's ninth-worst record at 46-55 thus far in 2013. Only three teams in baseball have a rotation ERA worse than the Giants' 4.75 mark. The future of the Giants' struggling rotation is filled with question marks.
Chad Gaudin and Tim Lincecum are set to become free agents after this season. The Giants also hold a $6.5 million option on Ryan Vogelsong and an $18 million option on Barry Zito.
If Gaudin, Zito, Lincecum and Vogelsong depart, the Giants will need to acquire three new starters behind Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner. No matter who slots in behind those two, the Giants will need more from Cain going forward.
The club inked Cain to a six-year, $127.5 million deal to anchor the staff before the start of the 2012 season. Cain pitched like an ace during the first year of the deal, but he's posted an ERA of 5.00 through 20 starts this season.
The Giants are on the hook for $20 million to Cain in each of the next four years, and they have an option on him in 2018. They're paying Cain like an ace, so they need him to pitch like one.
Bumgarner has emerged as the ace this year, as the rest of the staff has struggled. Bumgarner has posted an ERA between 2.93 and 3.37 in his four years as a starter with San Francisco. Last spring, the Giants wisely locked him up through 2017 with team options for 2018 and 2019.
Looking ahead to next season, the Giants have to first evaluate their own free-agent starters.
The option on Vogelsong seemed like a guarantee to be picked up until he posted a 7.19 ERA over nine starts to open the year before landing on the disabled list with a hand injury. He's working his way back now, so the Giants will have the final two months of the season to determine his future.
The Giants also have a club option on Zito, but it seems inconceivable that they'd bring him back for $18 million. After a strong April, Zito put up a 4.33 ERA in May, a 5.97 ERA in June and a 7.02 ERA thus far in July.
Gaudin has been a revelation as a starter this season; however, he washed out as a starter in 2009 when he posted a 5.13 ERA with San Diego. He'd been a reliever ever since until Vogelsong went down in May.
The Giants will have to determine if Gaudin's success as a starter has been a small sample-sized fluke, or if it's something he can sustain going forward.
Lincecum threw a no-hitter recently, but his 5.00 ERA over the last two years is the third-worst in baseball. Then again, his 3.96 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching—an ERA estimator based on strikeout, walk and home run rates) is a full run lower than his ERA during that span.
The best route with Lincecum—assuming he's not traded before the deadline—might be to make him the one-year qualifying offer over the winter. If he accepts, the Giants will have him on a one-year deal for substantially less than the $22 million he's making in 2013.
If he signs elsewhere, the Giants can take the funds saved from losing Lincecum and use that money to sign a free-agent starter.
The Giants will likely have to acquire someone on the free-agent market because they don't have any rotation help waiting in the upper minors. Michael Kickham and Eric Surkamp—the top arms at Triple-A—have been hit hard in their brief cameos in the big leagues.
Top prospects Kyle Crick, Clayton Blackburn, Chris Stratton, Martin Agosta, Joan Gregorio and Kendry Flores have all yet to pitch above A-ball. They each need more development time in the minors.
Impending free agents Matt Garza, Hiroki Kuroda, Ervin Santana, Josh Johnson, Phil Hughes, Ricky Nolasco and A.J. Burnett top next year's rotation market.
The 38-year-old Kuroda has been the best of the group over the last two seasons. Hughes may be the top bargain on the market given his extreme fly-ball tendencies. A move from hitter-friendly Yankee Stadium to spacious AT&T Park might be the cure Hughes needs to live up to his billing as a former top prospect.
This is obviously a premature look to the future. However, general manager Brian Sabean indicated that he's about ready to wave the white flag on 2013. He told the Giants' radio affiliate KNBR on Thursday, "As we speak, the math is horrific against us. And we're almost ready to turn the page on this season" (h/t Alex Pavlovic, San Jose Mercury News).
If the Giants are going to get back to their winning ways next season, they'll have to get their starting rotation back on track. They'll need Bumgarner to keep pitching like an ace, and they'll need Cain to get back to being the top-of-the-rotation arm he once was.
Sabean will have the rest of the season to evaluate Gaudin, Zito, Lincecum and Vogelsong—the Giants' impending free agents.
If Vogelsong gets back to pitching like he did during the 2011-12 seasons when he posted a 3.05 ERA, his option will become a bargain. If Gaudin keeps pitching well, he could be a solid option for next season as well.
If Lincecum can deliver more performances like his recent no-hitter and fewer starts like the one following his no-no, perhaps he could slot in behind Cain and Bumgarner in 2014.
The Giants have a ton of question marks in the rotation for next season. However, this much is certain: If they're going to get back into the playoffs, they'll need more consistent starting pitching. If they don't pitch better next year, they won't compete.