I acknowledge and support the handwringing over Madison Bumgarner's lack of velocity and control this spring. I double down on my strongly held, emphatically stated, and wholly un-expert belief that Bumgarner shouldn't be with the big team to start the year.
OK, now what? First, we watch like hawks next time Bumgarner takes the mound. Is he just shaking off the rust? Are his heavy heart and distracted mind dragging down his arm speed and messing with his mechanics? Whatever the case, there is no downside to holding Bumgarner back for a while.
The next order of business is to get another candidate for the starting rotation into camp. If Bumgarner is out of the running, the team has Todd Wellemeyer, Rule 5 pick Steve Johnson, Joe Martinez and Kevin Pucetas to choose from. Martinez already has a sore elbow, though apparently no serious damage, and Johnson hasn't begun to stretch it out past an inning or two. There's still time, but I don't get the sense the Giants consider him a real rotation candidate.
Pitching depth is crucial, and right now the Giants don't have it in the rotation. Depth is why a few teams have watched Kris Benson work out this winter.
It's also why the Giants should try to sign Braden Looper to a minor-league deal. He reportedly has turned down similar offers from the Dodgers and Nationals, so it's possible that he refuses to stoop so low and will wait for a team beseiged with injuries to come calling with a guaranteed million or three. In which case, good night and good luck, Braden. Or maybe he just hates the Dodgers. I've heard such people exist.
Looper isn't good, but he has one attribute that the current candidates all lack: a good chance of pitching every fifth day. He's thrown nearly 200 innings each of the past three seasons. Wellemeyer has not. Then again, if Wellemeyer keeps pitching like this, the question will be moot. The Giants will declare him veteran lightning in a bottle and hope that as the fifth starter, he'll at least hold forth a 2006-era Jamey Wrightish run of not-badness, while Pucetas and Martinez bide their time in Fresno in case Wellemeyer's elbow goes sproing, which it has done often in his seven-year career.
Of all the free agent starting pitchers still available, Looper seems the most likely to a) make a lot of starts and b) cave into a rock-bottom offer. Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz can afford to wait til mid-year, Bartolo Colon will mistake Tim Lincecum for a Chicken McNugget, and Jarrod Washburn only wants to pitch in states where elk hunting is within a snowshoe's jog of the home stadium (and even then he turned down $5 M from the Twins in January). Hell, offer Looper half a million guaranteed with incentives for games started. Even if he flames out as a starter, he's got bullpen experience. Make him the long man. It's money well spent if it keeps Madison Bumgarner from starting the year in the bigs.
The only caveat, really -- and this also applies to Wellemeyer or the non-roster relievers in camp -- is that the Giants have already winnowed the least of the lesser lights from the 40-man roster. A quick scan makes me wonder who would be next if a NRI guy made the team. Alex Hinshaw, perhaps, though it would be painful to part with a young, hard-throwing lefty no matter how erratic he's been in his brief big-league time. Matt Downs? Brett Pill? Oh wait, I forgot: by all outsider estimation, Fred Lewis comes north with the team the same day Tommy Lasorda is named Bruce Bochy's bench coach. I'm not entirely convinced, but a lot of things will have to go right for Fred this spring to avoid a trade or DFA.