Retaining Tim Lincecum and finding another starter is essential for the Giants.
The San Francisco Giants won two championships over three seasons from 2010-12 because of their excellent starting pitching. Over that three-year stretch, San Francisco had the second-best rotation ERA in the game at 3.52.
In 2013, the Giants finished 24th in rotation ERA. Not coincidentally, they finished with a record of 76-86, which put them 16 games back of the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West.
If the Giants are going to contend in 2014, they'll have to get their starting rotation back on track. That means they'll have to be aggressive in chasing the top arms on the free-agent market this winter.
The Giants need to re-sign Tim Lincecum and then pursue top free-agent starters Masahiro Tanaka, Ervin Santana, Ubaldo Jimenez and Hiroki Kuroda.
The Giants have been working to keep Lincecum in the fold.
Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area reported that after retaining Hunter Pence, general manager Brian Sabean turned his focus to re-signing Lincecum. However, Baggarly recently reported that Lincecum would test free agency rather than accept the two-year deal the Giants were discussing.
The Giants hold the leverage of the one-year qualifying offer in their negotiations with Lincecum. Extending the qualifying offer to Lincecum will likely limit his market because any team that finished outside of the bottom 10 in the standings would have to forfeit their first-round pick to sign him.
Thus, Lincecum may find a lack of suitors for his services on the free-agent market. In the end, how many teams are going to want to fork over a first-round choice and millions of dollars for a slight, 29-year-old righty who has posted a 4.76 ERA since the beginning of 2012?
To be fair to Lincecum, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) since the start of 2012 is a much more respectable 3.95. Even though he doesn't throw nearly as hard as he once did, he still gets hitters to swing and miss at an outstanding rate.
The Giants rightfully want to keep Lincecum in the fold. The leverage of the one-year qualifying offer coupled with their desire to keep him should tilt the market for Lincecum in the Giants' favor.
Yet even if the Giants retain Lincecum and his ERA continues to drop from a high of 5.18 in 2012, that won't be enough to get the rotation back on track. The Giants need to re-sign Lincecum and then add another starter this winter to get the starting staff back to being among the game's elite.
Masahiro Tanaka is arguably the top arm on the market.
Masahiro Tanaka might be the best available starting pitcher on the market. The 24-year-old righty went 20-0 with a 1.24 ERA during his final season in Japan.
One scout told George A. King III of the New York Post that Tanaka is better than Texas Rangers ace Yu Darvish. The scout said, "He is better than Darvish because he is a strike thrower...Overall, Darvish’s stuff might be a little bit better, but this guy knows how to pitch. He is like Kuroda, he has a lot of guts."
The Giants are set at the top of the rotation with Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain. Adding another front-line starter who is comparable to Darvish would make the Giants rotation one of the best in the business once more.
The question with Tanaka is whether or not the Giants can match the other suitors when it comes to the posting fee. The Rangers posted $51.7 million to sign Darvish. Would the Giants be willing to spend that much money to negotiate with Tanaka? The bet here is that the Giants won't be willing to go that far in the bidding for Tanaka.
Ervin Santana tops the domestic free-agent market.
If the Giants ultimately get outbid for Tanaka, they'll have to turn their sights on the domestic market to upgrade the rotation. Ervin Santana might be the top option on that front.
Santana posted a 3.24 ERA over 211 innings with the Royals last season. His slider ranked as one of the best in baseball. He complements his slide piece with a fastball that sits in the low- to mid-90s.
Santana is a fly-ball pitcher who has had trouble with the long ball in the past. His fly-ball tendencies make him an excellent fit at spacious AT&T Park. He would also benefit from a move out of the American League, which has the added difficulty of the designated hitter.
At 31, Santana is still young enough to give the signing team value on the back end of the deal. A four-year contract for Santana would make a lot of sense.
If the bidding goes beyond that, the Giants would be better off looking deeper into the free-agent market to add another starter.
Ubadlo Jimenez bounced back in 2013.
Ubaldo Jimenez is somewhat similar to Tim Lincecum. Both pitchers were once elite before going through sudden declines, and then they each showed signs of bouncing back in 2013.
He finished third in the Cy Young voting in 2010 when he went 19-8 with a 2.88 ERA. Jimenez then posted a combined 5.03 ERA during the 2011-12 seasons.
When he started 2013 with a 4.56 ERA in the first half, it looked like he was finished. Jimenez then bounced back by posting a 1.82 ERA over 13 starts after the All-Star break.
Like Lincecum, Jimenez has unorthodox mechanics, control problems and less velocity than he once had. Despite those issues, the 29-year-old Jimenez is coming off of a season in which he delivered a 3.30 ERA and 3.2 wins above replacement (WAR).
Three years ago, he posted 6.5 WAR and nearly won a Cy Young. Perhaps a move to pitcher-friendly AT&T Park and the tutelage of Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti can combine to get Jimenez all the way back to where he was in 2010.
Hiroki Kuroda has had an outstanding career.
If the Giants can't land a free-agent pitcher on a long-term deal, their best alternative would be to turn to a short-term solution like Hiroki Kuroda.
The Giants' farm system is absolutely loaded with pitching prospects at the lower levels of the minor leagues. Kyle Crick, Edwin Escobar, Adalberto Mejia, Chris Stratton, Clayton Blackburn and Kendry Flores are some of the minor leaguers who could eventually pitch in the San Francisco rotation. However, other than Escobar, none of the Giants' top arms have pitched above A-ball.
One way to bridge the gap between now and when the cavalry comes would be to sign Kuroda, or another veteran like Bronson Arroyo, to a short-term deal.
Kuroda will be 39 next season, but he's shown little sign of slowing down. He posted a 3.31 ERA in 2013 after posting a 3.32 ERA in 2012.
Arroyo, who will be 37 in 2013, may command a longer deal than Kuroda. He's gone 26-22 with a 3.76 ERA since the beginning of 2012 for the Reds.
Like Santana and fellow free-agent hurler Phil Hughes, Arroyo is a fly-ball pitcher who has had struggles with the long ball in the past. AT&T Park would be a much better fit for his skill set than hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark in Cincinnati.
The Giants need to add two starting pitchers behind Bumgarner and Cain this winter. They want to bring Lincecum back, and re-signing him would fill one need. If they can get him signed, they'll still need to add one more guy to improve a rotation that was suddenly one of the worst in the game last season.
The Giants need to get better starting pitching to get back into contention in 2014. Excellent starting pitching was the key to bringing the organization two championships in three seasons from 2010-12.
To make up 16 games on the Dodgers in one offseason, the Giants need to get back to shutting down the opposition by building an outstanding rotation this winter.