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MLB April takeaways: The Giants built a rotation from scratch – and may be creating a juggernaut

Gabe Lacques, USA TODAY
·7 min read
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They will finish April in first place or within a whisper of it, the definition of a Nice Little Story if ever there was one.

Yet while the San Francisco Giants’ 16-9 start has a nifty narrative of reclamation projects and old vets locating their mojo, the undertone might be a little darker for their rivals.

Is another superpower rising in the west?

That was the presumption when the club in November 2018 handed over its baseball operations to Farhan Zaidi, the well-regarded aide-de-camp to Billy Beane in Oakland and then Andrew Friedman with the Dodgers.

It was in L.A. where Friedman and Zaidi built out a death star still wreaking havoc on the major leagues, from its star-studded acquisitions to fringy pickups and longshot draft picks that turn into gold.

Now, two years after his rapid-fire waiver-wire machinations were greeted with befuddlement by Giants fans accustomed to the more linear movements of the three-title era, Zaidi now has his own fans and surely rivals alike asking a familiar question.

Just how is he doing that?

Sure, the revivals of Evan Longoria and a refreshed Buster Posey have helped, but it is a cobbled-together starting rotation that indicates Zaidi has assembled a coaching and development staff that uncannily draws out the best version of a player.

Kind of like the team down south Zaidi used to work for.

The Giants lead the major leagues with a 2.20 starting-pitcher ERA, only a portion of that achieved with $22 million man Johnny Cueto, who made two starts and a portion of a third before a lat strain shelved him.

No, the bulk of the lifting has been done by a quartet that shares one characteristic:

Anybody could have had them, and for cheap, this off-season.

Anthony DeSclafani celebrates with catcher Buster Posey after pitching a shutout against the Rockies.
Anthony DeSclafani celebrates with catcher Buster Posey after pitching a shutout against the Rockies.

The ace is Kevin Gausman, who was signed by Zaidi after he was non-tendered by the Reds in December 2019, turned in 10 strong starts in 2020 and returned after realizing no one would top the $18.9 million guarantee with the Giants’ qualifying offer.

Anthony DeSclafani, Aaron Sanchez, Alex Wood – all were signed to one-year deals totaling $13 million. Logan Webb, summoned from the bullpen to replace Cueto for the moment, is making $583,000.

Add it up, and that’s an entire rotation for $32.48 million - and they're outpitching the rest of the NL by at least half a run. To put it in terms their rivals can appreciate, that’s just $1 million more than Clayton Kershaw alone will pull in, and nearly $8 million less than Trevor Bauer’s $40 million 2021 guarantee.

Now, before this comes off as a tribute to arbitrage and saving pennies on the margins for billionaire owners, a reminder that what makes the Dodgers so imposing and the Giants potentially so is smarts stacked atop resources. And while the pandemic has made gauging fan enthusiasm nearly impossible, best believe the Giants will be eager to repopulate with stars once Zaidi’s buildout suggests it is time.

For now, the player-development group Zaidi has put together may yet match his previous employers in digging for gold. The Giants’ coaching staff is nearly a roster in itself, a 15-person amalgam pulled from all corners of the map.

Director of pitching Brian Bannister, poached from Boston, is on the very cutting edge of pitching development. Pitching coach Andrew Bailey knew Zaidi as a player in Oakland and honed his research and development chops with the Angels after retirement. Bullpen coach Craig Albernaz was a highly-respected player development figure with the Rays.

Try to reverse-engineer the success of the Giants’ pitching, and it leaves little clues. There are no massive leaps in spin rates, only subtle tweaks to pitch usage, such as DeSclafani relying a little less on his slider and four-seam fastball and distributing the load to his other three pitches. Gausman, now reaching the ace ceiling that eluded him (and many others) in Baltimore’s organization, has gradually laid off his four-seam fastball, cutting its usage from 64% in 2017 to 51% this year.

Command and conviction help. DeSclafani (4.29) and Gausman (3.40) rank 14th and 18th, respectively, in the NL in strikeout-walk ratio, while Sanchez’s 2.22 rate is his best since his All-Star season of 2016 in Toronto.

Kevin Gausman has a 2.14 ERA through five starts.
Kevin Gausman has a 2.14 ERA through five starts.

Wood has given up just three runs in 18 innings since coming off the injured list following a minor back procedure and lest we forget, he’s done this before – going 11-0 with a 1.56 ERA to start 2017 with the Dodgers, finishing 16-3.

All are giving up less than a home run per nine innings – shoutout Oracle Park marine layer – and in the NL only the Brewers and Mets have given up fewer longballs than the Giants’ 10.

Naturally, it all could wither. Sanchez had not pitched in a game since August 2019 after undergoing surgery for a torn shoulder capsule. Wood pitched just 48 ⅓ innings combined in 2019 and ’20. The Giants have yet to face the vaunted Dodgers and have enjoyed 13 games against the punchless Marlins and Rockies.

But the 2021 outcome is still, to a degree, incidental. In rehabbing the careers of Gausman and Drew Smyly (who nearly tripled his salary to $11 million with Atlanta after a 2020 pit stop in San Francisco) and now Sanchez and DeSclafani, the Giants are emerging as a hub of talent maximization.

Shortstop Brandon Crawford, Cueto and Brandon Belt will be free agents after the year; a quartet of superstar shortstops on the market may yet test Zaidi’s penchant for prudence.

And why not? Go time might arrive ahead of schedule in San Francisco.

Virus stays virulent

Perhaps 2020 will be baseball’s true pandemic season, and more than a handful of teams have reached the 85% vaccination plateau that enables them to loosen protocols. Yet COVID-19’s competitive impact remains profound.

The Astros, Twins and Nationals – two division favorites and a playoff contender – all got waylaid by the virus and felt an immediate impact. Washington’s season start was delayed by five days and it lost seven of its first 10 while Patrick Corbin, Kyle Schwarber, Josh Bell and both of its catchers landed on the IL.

The Twins won five of their first seven but after shortstop Andrelton Simmons – who said he’d refuse the COVID-19 vaccine – tested positive on April 14, the club had a three-day pause. They have lost seven of nine since returning.

And after five position players – including Jose Altuve, Alex Bregman and Yordan Alvarez – were placed on the IL for health and safety reasons on April 14, the Astros scored 13 runs in their next five games, losing three of them.

Old medalists

The top two AL teams in run differential? The White Sox (+31) and Astros (+24), who are managed by 76-year-old Tony La Russa and 71-year-old Dusty Baker, respectively.

Rookie woes

The shortened 2020 season meant several players who received Rookie of the Year votes maintained their eligibility in 2021. Yet it’s largely been a snakebit group.

Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, who slammed five home runs in less than a month last year, has been out since April 3 with a hyperextended wrist. Marlins ace-in-waiting Sixto Sanchez is only throwing on flat ground and his return from shoulder inflammation will be handled with significant care. Orioles outfielder Ryan Mountcastle is batting .184 and struggling defensively.

Health willing, we can probably start engraving the NL award for Braves right-hander Ian Anderson, who emerged as an ace in the 2020 postseason and has struck out 31 in 29 innings this year, with a 2.48 ERA.

NL Least

That vaunted NL East? Somehow, every team is below .500, which seems a near impossibility. The Nationals, at 9-12, are in the cellar yet just a game behind the “first-place” Braves and Phillies.

Well, we did say it would be a tight race, just not in this fashion.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: MLB's opening month takeaways: Giants' bargain rotation dominating