Blake Snell

Examining Giants' rotation options as veterans make rehab strides

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SAN FRANCISCO -- Since taking over as president of baseball operations, Farhan Zaidi has spoken often about how every team needs double-digit starting pitching options to get through 162 games. To make it through 2024, the Giants were planning on leaning heavily on young pitchers early and then riding a veteran-filled rotation down the stretch.

That's still the plan, although Blake Snell's struggles and multiple groin strains have put more pressure on the staff than expected. For most of the season, manager Bob Melvin has had just three reliable starters, and two of them are being closely watched. 

Jordan Hicks has pitched like an All-Star, but the longtime reliever is just six innings away from his previous career-high for innings in the majors. Hicks doesn't appear to be leaking oil at all -- he had 95 mph when he needed it Tuesday even while pitching with flu-like symptoms -- but there's a limit to how much the Giants will ask of a pitcher who looks fully capable of being an above-average starter throughout his four-year deal if he can stay healthy. 

"I think he has done remarkably well," Melvin said. "He knows how to manage his bullpens and he hasn't been throwing seven or eight innings, but he has been keeping us basically in every game that he has pitched and he has a (3.01) ERA … I don't think he's thinking too much about innings right now."

Kyle Harrison pitched about 100 innings last year across all levels, but he already is at 77 1/3. The staff has been aggressive, getting Harrison to the 95-pitch mark in three of his last four starts, but at some point, they will hit a wall there, too. 

Hicks and Harrison have joined ace Logan Webb in taking the ball every turn, but the other two spots haven't been nearly as stable, and overall the Giants are 22nd in starters' ERA. The fourth spot, currently, mostly consists of bullpen games, with Spencer Howard pitching bulk innings. Keaton Winn has struggled, giving up at least five runs in each of his past four starts.

Given the usual cost for starters -- and more glaring needs elsewhere -- the Giants don't want to be looking for pitching depth at the trade deadline. They feel like they have plenty of options for the second half, most of whom have made progress recently. Here's a rundown of some of the options:

Blake Snell 

A left groin strain has landed Snell on the IL for the second time, but the Giants are hopeful that this stint is shorter than the 25 games he missed previously. Snell played catch off flat ground this week and the plan is for the reigning Cy Young Award winner to throw a bullpen session this weekend.

Snell's previous trip to the IL included two minor-league rehab starts, which were used in part to get him up to speed after he missed the whole spring. He likely wouldn't need more than one this time, if he even needs one at all.

Robbie Ray 

The former Cy Young Award winner was the big trade acquisition of the offseason, although he was recovering from Tommy John surgery at the time. Ray has pitched twice in the Arizona Complex League, striking out eight of 10 minor leagues he faced, and he is right on track with the original rehab plan. 

"At least he's on his way now," Melvin said over the weekend. "We knew that the earliest it would probably be is right around the All-Star break. We're probably still on schedule for that. Typically these things hit a bump along the way. It hasn't yet -- knock on wood. I know he feels great."

Ray's velocity has been good in the ACL and he'll make another start there Thursday. There likely will be some guardrails as he returns to the big leagues next month, but the Giants are hopeful he's a full go down the stretch and potentially into the playoffs. For all sides, there's a lot riding on that possibility. 

The Giants will need Ray's innings in the second half and the 32-year-old can opt out of the final two years and $50 million on his contract after this season. If he returns and pitches well, he will have an interesting decision to make. 

Alex Cobb

An All-Star last year, Cobb was supposed to return from offseason hip surgery a few weeks before Ray's planned return. But he was so far ahead in his rehab that at some point in March, it seemed realistic that Cobb could return after missing just a start or two. Then came the elbow soreness, followed by shoulder soreness that doctors had a hard time figuring out. 

Cobb got multiple cortisone shots and now is on nerve medication that has helped him turn the corner. He threw his first bullpen session Tuesday and said afterward that he "felt great." Cobb was up to 91 mph, good velocity for an early bullpen, and mixed in breaking balls among his 25 pitches. He's due to throw another bullpen session on Friday, at which point the Giants should have a better idea of a timetable. 

Tristan Beck

The right-hander was a valuable swingman for the staff last year and could have started the season in the rotation given the injuries to more experienced starters, but he had surgery to repair an arm aneurysm in early March. Beck is now playing catch with no restrictions and is encouraged by the way he feels. He's set to throw his first bullpen session in a few days.

"I'm just happy he's throwing a baseball after what he has gone through," Melvin said recently. "I think he's on a nice track. There are no limitations at this point in time, he's kind of letting it go, so to speak. What the timetable is, I'm not sure yet. But I think we're all happy that he's just back playing baseball and healthy again. We'll see where that goes."

Beck had a 3.92 ERA as a rookie, pitching primarily out of the bullpen. It looks like he'll have a chance to return to that multi-inning role at some point in the second half. 

The Prospects

Most of the organization's best pitching prospects are in Triple-A, although one of them -- lefty Reggie Crawford -- is being used purely as a reliever. Right-hander Hayden Birdsong was promoted from Double-A this week after posting a 2.05 ERA and striking out 61 in 48 1/3 innings. Some Giants people view him as their most underrated prospect, although it would be quite the leap to be a big league rotation option this season. 

The Giants already have taken a look at Mason Black, who has a 8.79 ERA in the majors this season but is at 2.95 in nine Triple-A starts. Carson Whisenhunt has a special changeup, but he has struggled with his command. Landen Roupp currently is on the IL. 

There are a lot of good arms in Triple-A, but if the Giants have to use any of them in their rotation in the second half, something has probably gone seriously wrong with their original game plan.

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