San Francisco Giants: One Rotation Fix Could Lie in Farm System


As the offseason approaches for the San Francisco Giants, the team’s biggest need has become increasingly clear. The starting pitching for the Giants has consistently been the team’s most glaring weakness throughout the season, and if the Giants want to continue their even-year success in 2016, that must be addressed.

More from Golden Gate Sports

Obviously Madison Bumgarner is the ace, and he isn’t going anywhere. After such a heavy workload between the 2014 regular season and postseason, Bumgarner proved that he is indeed still a workhorse this year, as he is approaching his fifth consecutive 200-inning season, and is chasing 20 wins, a milestone Giants’ pitchers haven’t achieved in more than two decades.

Jake Peavy will be back next year, in the final year of his two-year deal. He has been solid this season since returning from a hip and back ailment, but has proven incapable of consistently eating six or seven innings for the Giants. Matt Cain will also be returning, but he’s an even bigger question mark than Peavy. After elbow surgery last offseason left Cain with a new release point, he struggled to master his command, and left too many balls over the middle of the plate. Will an offseason of work, and a complete Spring Training help alleviate his control issues?

There’s Chris Heston, who has had a surprisingly good rookie season, but isn’t a lock to start next year. He was the savior of the rotation early in the year, but has seemed to wear down as the season got deeper and deeper. This next month could go a long way towards determining Heston’s possible status for next season.

Tim Hudson is most likely retiring after this year. Tim Lincecum and Ryan Vogelsong are both free agents after this season is up, and the future is very murky for both. Trade deadline acquisition Mike Leake will also be a free agent. Leake and the Giants have expressed mutual interest for working on a deal after the season, but the unpredictability of free agency makes it impossible to tell right now if they will get a deal done.

More from San Francisco Giants

There are more variables in the Giants’ rotation than an algebra textbook. With a truckload of money coming off the books this offseason, the Giants are expected to be big players in free agency, especially for a starting pitcher, of which there will be plenty to choose from.

A stud free agent, mainly to fill the role of number-two pitcher behind Bumgarner, certainly seems like a necessity. But the back end of the rotation has to get stronger as well. One solution for that issue could already be in the farm system, in the form of Clayton Blackburn.

While most of the attention in the Giants’ organization is on pitchers like Tyler Beede and Kyle Crick, Blackburn has quietly established himself as a nice prospect, and at just 22 years old, there’s still plenty of room to grow.

Though Blackburn isn’t seen as having as high a ceiling as guys like Beede (who is seen as a potential future ace) or Crick (whose ceiling is dangerously close to caving in), he has shown to be quite a good young pitcher. He may not be a future number-one starter, but he seems to have all the tools to be a solid middle-rotation pitcher.

After putting together four very nice minor league seasons to start his career, the 2011 16th-round pick enjoyed his best season yet in 2015. It didn’t start out that way, as Blackburn missed a lot of Spring Training with a shoulder injury, and that carried over into the regular season. He missed the first month because of the cranky shoulder, and didn’t make his debut with the Triple-A Sacramento River Cats until May 9th. He struggled his first month, as he allowed 36 baserunners and 15 runs in 25 innings.

June was a weird month for Blackburn, as he bounced back and forth from the rotation and the bullpen, as Cain and Peavy were with Sacramento while rehabbing. He improved from his May, as he totaled a 3.38 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 24 innings, split between three starts and three relief appearances.

After that, Blackburn got exponentially better with each passing month. In July, which saw Blackburn back in the rotation permanently, he went 4-0 with a 2.35 ERA and 1.337 WHIP. In August, he was 3-1 with a 1.98 ERA and 1.128 WHIP. He made one start in September before the minor league season ended, and threw seven shutout innings. In his last eight starts of the season, Blackburn allowed nine runs and just one home run in 50.1 innings, with 42 strikeouts.

In the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League, Blackburn’s 2.85 ERA was the best in the circuit. As Andrew Baggarly put it, “winning the ERA title in the PCL is harder than body-slamming a bear”. Despite being no better than the Giants’ 21st-ranked prospect on, Blackburn was able to body slam that bear like Hulk Hogan did Andre the Giant.

To very little surprise, Blackburn was voted “Outstanding Pitcher” by his River Cat teammates. Not only was he an outstanding pitcher, but Blackburn proved he can hit a little bit, which is almost a prerequisite for Giants’ starting pitchers. Three times this season Blackburn drove in more runs than he allowed his opponents to score (also known as a Bumgarner). On July 29th, he shut out the Las Vegas 51s over seven innings and hit a solo home run. In his last two starts of the year, he shut out his opponents over 14.1 innings, and drove in a run in each game.

Overall, Blackburn hit .296 (8-27) with a double, a home run, and four RBI.

It seems highly likely at this point that the Giants will be mathematically eliminated with at least a week left in the season. If that happens, maybe Blackburn gets an audition at the big league level this season. Even if that doesn’t happen, Blackburn should get a nice, long look in Spring Training next season. He’s surprised and opened eyes at every level in which he’s competed so far. If he can do that next year, he might be able to steal away a rotation spot.

Next: Tomlinson Could Be a Super Utility Player