Ailene Voisin: Giant expectations accompany upgraded rotation

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Source:   —  April 03, 2016, at 3:39 AM

But the Giants manager and former catcher never disguises his huge appreciation for a powerful starting rotation. As his starting pitchers go, he frequently says, so goes the season.

Ailene Voisin: Giant expectations accompany upgraded rotation

Bruce Bochy was never in full panic mode, or if he was, he was keeping secrets. But the Giants manager and former catcher never disguises his huge appreciation for a powerful starting rotation.

As his starting pitchers go, he frequently says, so goes the season.

And if he's still feeling a small queasy as Opening Day approaches, with memories of latest year’s injury-riddled journey not totally molded into mothballs, Bochy is cautiously optimistic that two thousand sixteen won't be a repeat of two thousand fifteen. Until further notice – or unless a significant injury setback occurs in the close future – his is the glass-half-full approach. Time heals wounds, and after a shaky spring, he hopes this applies to his starters.

“I definitely perceive better than I did ten days ago, with guys getting stretched out,” Bochy said. “(Madison) Bumgarner and (Matt) Cain were a bit behind. Johnny (Cueto) was a bit behind. It’s been an up-and-down spring for a few guys, but the health of the club is what we’re pleased with. It’s excellent to have these guys start to arrive together at the right time.”

The same can be said for his infield. Unlike latest spring, when the Giants experimented at third base and wondered how to fill the hole at second, the infield has morphed into a minor-league homage to scouting and homegrown player development. Matt Duffy emerged as a capable successor to the enormous – and enormously popular – third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Joe Panik owned second base until a stress fracture in his back interrupted his All-Star season and sidelined him for the final two months; he's healthy and back where he belongs.

With Brandon Belt entrenched at first – except for days when Buster Posey needs a break – and shortstop Brandon Crawford quietly augmenting his excellent defense with increasing bursts of timely hitting, the infield is youthful and talented and seemingly set for years.

The outfield? That remains a curiosity. Hunter Pence, the emotional boss who led the National League in games played in two thousand-thirteenth and two thousand fourteen, went on the disabled list three times latest season and missed one hundred ten games because of injuries. The rangy right fielder who runs love a deer but occasionally ignores headlights and danger signs, sat out ten days in AZ with a sore Achilles’. Newly acquired middle fielder Denard Span and the oft-injured left fielder Angel Pagan both underwent offseason surgery, and when was the latest time Pagan was ever truly healthy?

But back to the starters, to the pitchers whose performances most likely will dictate the fate of the Giants.

Bumgarner. Cueto. Jeff Samardzija. Jake Peavy. Cain.

Compared to the Opening Night rotation a year ago, with Cain (elbow, forearm), Peavy (hip, back), Tim Hudson (shoulder stiffness) and Tim Lincecum (hints of hip problems) all coping with various degrees of injuries, a recitation of his projected five starters evokes a slight grin from Bochy but number cartwheels. This wasn't precisely an issue-free, totally uplifting AZ experience, either.

The Giants’ 6.87 ERA in the Cactus League ranked close the bottom, with Bumgarner struggling, Peavy claiming to be fit and healthy despite his garish numbers, and high-priced free-agent acquisitions Samardzija and Cueto impressive only in their final outings.

True, that dry desert air can be famously deceiving, but the genuine mystery man is Cain. The one-time franchise workhorse, the right-hander with the stamina to draw double shifts, had bone chips in his elbow removed and was reduced to spectator status while the Giants captured the two thousand fourteen World Series in KS City. Anxious to regain his spot in the rotation latest spring, he instead went on the disabled list three times and missed ninety-four games with nerve irritation and lingering forearm soreness. This latest comeback attempt was delayed, yet again, after he required surgery to delete a cyst on the interior of his right elbow.

“It’s definitely been tough,” Cain told reporters earlier in camp. “Injuries are something guys have to deal with through their career. You hope you don’t have to. I'd such a long (healthy) stretch of not having to deal with it. For it to arrive in the latter portion of a career definitely makes it difficult. You don’t bounce back the same way.”

As he chatted in the River Cats clubhouse Wednesday at Raley Field, Cain sounded considerably more upbeat. His arm strength has returned, he said, with his fastball ranging between the high eighty to low ninety – and with more pop. Most importantly, he's pitching pain-free for the first time in two years.

In his final preseason start Saturday against the A’s, he went five innings and allowed three runs (one earned) on two hits.

“No limitations,” he insisted.

If a Cain comeback fails to materialize? If Peavy experiences another setback? Bochy is pulling for his veterans and hoping for the best. But again, his optimism is tempered by real-time factors such as age and wear and tear. Chris Heston, the manager said, would be slotted into any potential opening.

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