San Francisco Giants: Can the Starting Rotation Expect a Decline in 2011?

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San Francisco Giants: Can the Starting Rotation Expect a Decline in 2011?
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A lot is expected of the San Francisco Giants this season. After riding their tremendous starting rotation into the postseason and an eventual World Series title, Giants fans are expecting much of the same.

And why shouldn't they?

Other than a Juan Uribe/Edgar Renteria for Miguel Tejada switch in the infield, they're returning with almost the exact same team that beat out two of baseball's powerhouse teams, the Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers, en route to some October fireworks.

And with a healthy Mark DeRosa and a full season of rookie phenom, Buster Posey, we should have high expectations for the 2011 Giants, right?

Well, a word of caution to those expecting a repeat this season: there's a lot of miles on that starting rotation and the after effects of a long regular season and the added stress of the postseason could become an issue.

What am I talking about?

Well, let's examine their ace, Tim Lincecum.

Lincecum was up and down in 2010, finishing the regular season 16-10 with a 3.43 ERA, his highest since his debut in 2007, and a more-than-respectable 231 strikeouts.

It was in the playoffs, though, where Lincecum really shined. In five starts, he went 4-1, including a complete game, two hit shutout against the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the NLDS. He posted a 2.43 ERA and 0.92 WHIP.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Lincecum was, in a word, "stellar."

But it was a long road for Lincecum. He threw 212.1 innings during the regular season, less than the previous season, but an additional 37 innings in the postseason. That brought his total innings pitched in 2010 to 249.1, by far the most of his career.

But Lincecum is only 26 years old and he's had five months to rest, so why think the extra innings will affect him this season? Well, because it's happened before.

Josh Beckett provides a good example. During the 2007 regular season, Becket threw 200.2 innings, posting a 3.27 ERA and a 1.14 WHIP. During Boston's run to a second World Series title that year, Beckett threw another 30 innings, bringing his season total to 230.2, the most of his career.

The following season, Beckett saw his ERA rise to 4.03 and he landed on the DL on August 29 with shoulder problems.

Cole Hamels is another example. In 2008, he posted a 3.09 ERA in 227.1 innings during the regular season. He threw another 35 innings in the postseason, bringing his total to 262.1, again, the most of his career. His postseason ERA that year was an excellent 1.80.

In 2009, he threw 33.9 fewer innings, saw his regular season ERA rise by nearly a run-and-a-half to 4.32 and his postseason ERA that year was an ugly 7.58.

Now, every pitcher is different, of course, so there's no telling how well Lincecum will pitch until we start the season, but we've already seen his velocity decline over the last three seasons.

What is the bigger concern heading into 2011?

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Overall, four of the Giants' most important arms set career highs in innings pitched last season. Matt Cain (244.2), Jonathan Sanchez (213.1), Madison Bumgarner (213.4, including the minors) and Brian Wilson (86.1) all pushed themselves further than ever and could pay the price this season.

The one to be concerned the most with is Bumgarner. His 2010 total was 72.2 innings more than he's ever thrown before. Now, take into account he's looking at a full season in the Majors this year, and he's almost sure to surpass that mark by the time it's over, especially if the Giants make the postseason again.

Considering the overall strength of their starting rotation, it's easy to overlook the fact that the Giants actually lack depth. Should the need arise to replace someone in the rotation, whether it's due to injury or wanting to limit innings, as could be the case with Bumgarner, there aren't many names to throw out there.

Jeff Suppan is at the top of the list, followed by Elmer Dessens, who hasn't started since 2007. Both were added this offseason on minor league contracts.

So, Giants fans are right to expect big things from their team in 2011. They have a great starting rotation, an All-Star closer in Brian Wilson and a great, close-knit lineup. More importantly, Giants fans want to prove that 2010 had nothing to do with luck.

But if they're going to lean on their starters to carry them through the season once again, the Giants might not want to lean on them too hard, or they could fall over from exhaustion.

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