Matt Cain has a terrible burden this season. Because the Giants’ plan for putting together a team is so flawed, their only chance to escape the NL West cellar is with a breakout season from Cain.
It could happen. Cain has always had the kind of pitches, including a fastball that can get into the high 90s, that makes observers think he can pitch a shutout any time he starts. The only questions have been his pitch command and maturity.
Now 22, Cain struggled at the startof his rookie season last year but hit his stride in mid-May, going 12-7 with a 3.34 ERA the rest of the way. In his last eight decisions, he was 5-3 with a 2.55 ERA.
In his first start this season, he gave up two home runs in the fifth inning, three runs overall in six innings. But it was still an encouraging start because he walked only one batter in six innings. If he continues to attack the strike zone, he’ll have that big year the Giants desperately need.
Elsewhere, it’s bleak. Supposedly, this is a team built on pitching and defense, but there’s not much of either.
Kirk Rueter ... er ... Barry Zito got lifted after five innings in the opener, after yielding three runs, (two earned) including walking in a run. Get used to that kind of line, Giants fans. With a "fastball" that never exceeded 85 mph on the radar gun Tuesday, Zito showed why his numbers have trended down since 2002.
Matt Morris is another St. Louis Cardinals castoff. After a great rookie season, the league has caught up to Noah Lowry. Do we really believe Russ Ortiz is back to his winning form? Andlet’s not even talk about that bullpen.
Defensively, only shortstop Omar Vizquel and catcher Bengie Molina are superior talents.
The chief problem for the Giants in putting a team together is the same it’s been for years: The failure of the farm system.
If you have a productive farm system, you can bring in players at the lowest salary level, giving you payroll flexibility. If the Giants want to know how that’s done, they need only look around their own division; both the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks have a number of young prospects, either in the lineup or on the way.
Across the Bay, the A’s have another good young player, Travis Buck, starting in right field, along with three other players who came out of their farm system: Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby and Nick Swisher.
The Giants have Pedro Feliz as their lone farm-system starter.
Because they don’t have players at the bottom of the salary scale, the Giants have problems in free agency. They spent far too much on Zito and signed Barry Bonds to a contract in the $16 million-$18 million range but otherwise shopped at the bargain counter, picking up players such as Dave Roberts and Ryan Klesko who are past their prime, and re-signing Ray Durham (ditto) and Feliz. So, the result is an old, not very good lineup.
The only compelling story lines this season will be Bonds’ drive for the career home run record and
Cain’s development. If Cain develops into a standout pitcher, the Giants should be able to hold off the Colorado Rockies for fourth place — and isn’t that an exciting scenario?