Only Cliff Lee Can Save the Giants Now

This is how the other half lives. Through the first two months of 2013, the Giants have the third-worst rotation ERA in the National League at 4.76. From 2009 through 2012, the Giants allowed the fewest runs in all of Major League Baseball en route to four straight winning seasons, two National League West division titles, and two World Championships.

They drafted Matt Cain from a Tennessee high school in the first round in 2002. He debuted in 2005 and established himself as a perennial All-Star in 2009 at the age of 24.

They used the 10th pick of the 2006 draft on Tim Lincecum out of the University of Washington. Lincecum debuted in 2007 and promptly won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. He was the ace of the staff in 2010 as the Giants won their first World Series title since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

One year after drafting Lincecum 10th overall, the Giants went back into the South to nab North Carolina high-schooler Madison Bumgarner with the 10th pick of the 2007 draft. Bumgarner replaced Todd Wellemeyer in the rotation mid-way through 2010 and then he beat out Barry Zito for a spot in the playoff rotation. He threw eight shutout innings in the World Series against the Rangers. He’s put up a 3.19 ERA over 606 innings and won two championships—all before his 24th birthday.

The Giants even got a steal in the 27th round of the 2004 draft when they selected Jonathan Sanchez. He gave them three quality years in the rotation from 2009-2011. He went 13-9 with a 3.07 ERA during the 2010 season. The Giants flipped him at just the right time after the 2011 season for Melky Cabrera—who then went out and hit .346 for the 2012 championship team.

Prior to the 2011 season, the Giants brought back one of their former top prospects from a decade ago, Ryan Vogelsong, to little fanfare. When Zito went down early in 2011, Vogelsong came up from Triple-A, made the All-Star team, finished 11th in the Cy Young voting, and then pitched like an ace during the 2012 postseason. In Vogelsong, the Giants signed a 33-year-old who hadn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2006, and somehow got him to go 27-16 with a 3.05 ERA over two seasons and 3-0 with a 1.09 ERA during the 2012 playoffs.

The other shoe has dropped on the Giants early in 2013. Here are the current ERA’s of each member of the rotation:

Bumgarner: 3.13

NL Average: 3.91

Zito: 4.13

Lincecum: 4.75

Cain: 5.00

Vogelsong: 7.19

Michael Kickham: 15.43

Last year, the Giants starting five made 160 out of 162 starts. Vogelsong missed one start with a back ailment, and that was it on the health front. This year, he’s down for the count for at least two months with a broken right hand. Michael Kickham came up on Tuesday night to replace Vogelsong in the rotation, and it wasn’t pretty.

In the first inning, he flashed a 92-94 mile-per-hour fastball and a swing-and-miss slider. He struck out two of the A’s first four hitters and the only question at that point was just how many Cy Young Awards this kid was going to win. Kickham wears goggles while he pitches, he’s got a bit of mullet going on, he’s left-handed, he’s 6’4″ and 220 pounds, and he’s got some funk in his delivery. The camera kept cutting to his family and his pretty girlfriend in the stands while he was mowing down the A’s. It was Michael Kickham’s world for a brief moment, and the rest of us were just along for the ride, enjoying the show.

However, in the back of my mind, I knew that it wasn’t going to end well—not for a wild pitcher taking on one of the game’s most patient teams. The A’s weren’t going to help Kickham by expanding the zone, and Kickham needed all the help he could get.

After four walks—including a maddening intentional walk to load the bases ordered by manager Bruce Bochy—and four runs over 2.1 innings, Kickham’s night was over. The Giants were left to ponder what Tuesday night might have looked like had the ball been given to the organization’s sixth pick of the 2009 draft, Zack Wheeler. Alas, Wheeler is currently the property of the New York Mets via the Giants’ ill-fated acquisition of Carlos Beltran in 2011.

Instead of turning the ball over to the next Cain, Lincecum, or Bumgarner, the Giants handed the ball to a prospect who might fit in at the back of the rotation one day if everything breaks right. He’s clearly not ready for the show right now, but he’s the only internal option for a team that wasn’t planning on needing a sixth starter this year.

The Giants are almost certainly going to have to turn to the trade market to give this shot rotation a boost. Unfortunately, the trading deadline is two months away, so it’s slim pickings right now. And, as the deadline approaches, the Giants are going to find that Cliff Lee is the only person who can save them now, and he probably won’t be coming.

While Kickham was struggling to throw the ball over the plate in Oakland last night, Lee was busy carving up the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Lee allowed only one run over eight innings of dominant baseball. Since 2008, Lee has gone 77-44 with a 2.85 ERA. According to FanGraphs, only Justin Verlander has been better, and only by the slightest of margins.

Lee might be the best pitcher on the planet, and there has been some talk that the Phillies would consider putting him on the market if they decide to tear it down. However, that buzz was shot down recently when a team insider told Nick Cafardo of the Boston Globe (via MLB Trade Rumors):

Every time I hear a Lee rumor, I don’t believe it. Don’t think we’d be that dumb unless what we got back in return was so overwhelming that we’d be dumb to pass it up. Will that happen? My gut is it won’t.

Hell, Giants general manager Brian Sabean ought to be on the phone with Phillies GM Ruben Amaro every day, offering the whole farm system for Lee.

The Beltran acquisition backfired in 2011, but Sabean’s sentiment was right. The Giants aren’t going to be good forever, so they ought to go all-in to maximize their window. It’s too bad Wheeler isn’t around to help this year’s team, but that doesn’t mean going for it in 2011 was the wrong choice. The Giants were comfortably in first place at the time of the deal and Sabean was trying to push them over the top to defend a championship. Ain’t nothing wrong with that.

But now it’s 2013 and there’s another championship to defend. The Giants rotation is running on fumes. Few trade alternatives look appealing. Vogelsong is out for the next two months.

Only Cliff Lee can save the Giants now.

All statistics in this article are courtesy of FanGraphs, ESPN and Baseball-Reference.