It's been just two games, but the Giants are already down two starters and a first baseman, as injuries to Matt Cain, Jake Peavy and Brandon Belt are testing San Francisco's depth early.
It's an odd-numbered year, so perhaps this should have been expected, but in the season's first week, the defending champion Giants are already falling apart. Prior to Tuesday's game against the Diamondbacks, San Francisco placed Matt Cain on the disabled list with a strained flexor tendon; during it, they lost Brandon Belt to an apparent groin strain; and after it, they revealed that Jake Peavy could join Cain, Hunter Pence and Travis Ishikawa on the shelf due to lower back pain. Manager Bruce Bochy and his squad have had better days, to say the least
Though its severity isn't entirely clear yet, the most disconcerting of the injuries is Cain's. He was limited to 15 starts last year, none after July 9 due to DL stints for a finger laceration, a hamstring strain, bone chips in his elbow and a bone spur in his ankle—the last two of which required surgeries. But the 30-year-old righty had generated optimism this spring. Initially expected not to make his Cactus League debut until mid-March, Cain first took the mound in a game situation on March 10, and his spring had generally gone smoothly, with his fastball sitting in the 90–92 miles per hour range, and only minor discomfort reported between starts.
Alas, after throwing 79 pitches over four scoreless innings against the Athletics last Friday, Cain experienced tightness in his forearm and underwent an MRI on Monday. While it was determined that he does not have a torn ulnar collateral ligament, which would require Tommy John surgery, he was diagnosed with the strained flexor tendon. Via the San Jose Mercury News' Andrew Baggarly, Cain was told by team trainers that the injury was a "two-week thing:"
Cain said the forearm stiffness was different than the discomfort he felt in the spring, when the back of his elbow “got heated up a bit” during starts. Trainers had cautioned him to expect some soreness as he pitched with more range of motion.
Instead of making Wednesday's start, Cain was placed on the DL retroactive to April 3, and the team recalled 26-year-old righty Chris Heston to take at least one turn and perhaps more, since the earliest Cain can return is April 18. Flexor tendon strains can vary widely in their recovery times, however, and in the grand scheme, the Giants have to be concerned about the litany of injuries suffered by the once-durable Cain, who had never been on the disabled list prior to 2013—and whose first two injuries, for a batted ball-induced forearm contusion and the aforementioned finger laceration, were flukes. He's still owed $67.5 million, including a steep $7.5 million buyout on a $21 million club option for '18 that can vest based on his workload.
As for Heston, he's a 12th-round draft pick from 2009 out of East Carolina University who has spent the past two seasons at Triple A Fresno and made three appearances for the big club last September, totaling 5 1/3 innings; he started Game 162 against the Padres, yielding three runs over four innings. At Fresno, he pitched to a 3.38 ERA over a Pacific Coast League-high 173 innings, striking out 6.5 per nine. The Baseball America Prospect Handbook 2015 placed him 25th among the team's prospects, calling him a "crafty righthander who succeeds without any pitch that grades out as even average" with a fringy repertoire starring an 86–89 mph two-seamer, curve and fringe-average changeup—an emergency starter, as he's being used here. Baggarly noted that he earned the nickname "Hesto Presto" via Double A Richmond announcer Jon Laaser for his ability to generate inning-ending double plays, so he's got that going for him, which is nice.
Cain's scratch was the second in a row for the Giants, whose plans to start Peavy on Tuesday had already been scrubbed in the wake of his rough April 1 start against the A's; pitching despite back soreness in hopes of at least staying on turn, he was battered for seven runs in 3 1/3 innings. After receiving medication and treatment, he felt well enough to throw a bullpen session Tuesday but continued to experience discomfort, putting Sunday's scheduled start against the Padres in doubt.
The 33-year-old righty—whom the team re-signed to a two-year, $24 million deal on the basis of his late-season run after being acquired from the Red Sox—made 32 regular-season starts last year, just the second time since 2007 that he's taken the hill 28 or more times. Since then, Peavy has spent time on the DL for an elbow strain, a torn muscle in his lower leg, surgery to repair a detached latissimus dorsi, rotator cuff tendinitis, a groin strain and a rib fracture. If there's good news, it's that the litany reported via the Baseball Prospectus injury database lacks any entries for his back.
Peavy's Tuesday night start was instead taken by Ryan Vogelsong, who was lit up for seven runs in 4 2/3 innings by the Diamondbacks. Coming off a 4.00 ERA (87 ERA+) over 184 2/3 innings last year, the 37-year-old Vogelsong came into the year viewed as an insurance policy after he re-signed with the Giants via a one-year, $4 million deal in January, a move which came in the wake of 39-year-old Tim Hudson undergoing surgery to shave down a bone spur in his right ankle. Hudson, who began the spring behind schedule but experienced no complications in taking his turns from March 12 onward, is on track to start against the Padres on Thursday, with Tim Lincecum on Friday, Opening Day starter Madison Bumgarner (rematched against World Series counterpart James Shields) on Saturday and then presumably either Peavy or Vogelsong on Sunday. As for Monday’s home opener against the Rockies: Who knows right now?
UPDATE: And now the Giants are saying that Sunday's starter is TBA as well.
So far, there's been no indication that the team will turn to Yusmeiro Petit, who made 12 starts for the team last year, six of which came after Lincecum was sent to the bullpen in late August. While he put up just a 3.93 ERA during that latter span, his 46/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio was impressive, and his first outing saw him set a major league record for most consecutive batters retired with 46, a string that included his previous six relief appearances. Bochy instead sees the 30-year-old righty as both a long reliever and potential high-leverage option; Petit made his season debut in relief of Vogelsong on Tuesday, throwing 1 1/3 scoreless innings. Meanwhile, the Giants did sign Kevin Correia, who had been released by the Mariners earlier this spring after pitching to a 5.44 ERA in 154 innings last year for the Dodgers and Twins, to a minor league deal on Tuesday. Correia was drafted by the Giants in 2002 and spent part or all of '03 to '08 with the team.
As for Belt, the 26-year-old first baseman injured himself while in pursuit of a popup in the fourth inning of Tuesday's game and was replaced by utilityman Joaquin Arias, though he departed via a double-switch that saw Buster Posey shift to first base in the fifth inning. After the game, Belt—who was limited to 61 games last year due to a broken left thumb and a concussion that required two DL stints—told reporters that while he believed the strain was mild, he expressed concern about making the lateral movements necessary to field his position. He's scheduled to undergo an MRI on Wednesday, with his status to be determined from there.
With Ishikawa on the DL until at least April 14 due to a back injury, the team may recall Adam Duvall from Triple A if Belt heads to the DL, though San Francisco could also use Posey there and recall catcher Andrew Susac. The 26-year-old Duvall hit .298/.360/.599 with 27 homers at Fresno last year, but just .192/.234/.342 with three homers in 77 PA with the Giants, while the 25-year-old Susac hit .268/.379/.451 with 10 homers at Fresno and then .273/.326/.466 with three homers in 95 PA in the bigs.
As for Pence, who suffered a nondisplaced fracture of his left ulna on March 5, he's been placed on the DL retroactive to March 27. He had his cast removed on Friday and could begin swinging a bat by mid-month, though he's not likely to return before May. Gregor Blanco has taken the first two starts of the season in rightfield and is expected to see the bulk of the time there, with righty Justin Maxwell stepping in against lefties.
In all, it’s a frustrating barrage of injuries for the Giants, whose off-season roster moves were considerably more understated than those of the rival Dodgers and Padres. The good news is that none of them have ruled anyone out for the season yet. The bad news is that it may be a good while before they’re whole again.