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Scoping the San Francisco Rotation
2005-02-14 10:01
by Jon Weisman

Have you been living in fear of the San Francisco Giants' starting pitching?

The Giants have numbers - at least seven pitchers who, at their best, can make a legitimate claim to start on almost any pitching staff in baseball.

They have a big-time pitcher in Jason Schmidt.

But they also have enough questions about age, health and ability to join the Dodgers in a realm of starting pitcher uncertainty - even if they don't realize it yet up in the Bay Area.

San Francisco's Top Seven:

Jason Schmidt: A workhorse's workhorse who occasionally buckles under the strain - last year's 32 starts were his most since 1999 - the 32-year-old righthander saw his ERA rise nearly a run in 2004 but still struck out a career-high 251 batters. Certainly figures again to be one of the top pitchers in the National League West - but he also figures to miss a few starts as well.

Noah Lowry: Kept the Giants breathing down the Dodgers' neck in 2004 by going undefeated in 16 appearances (14 starts), including two complete games. His ERA+ was 116 and he struck out seven batters per nine innings. A 24-year-old lefthander from Pepperdine, he lines up as the Giants second-best starter and someone who matches up favorably against Odalis Perez if the league doesn't figure Lowry out in his sophomore season.

Brett Tomko: Stunned Dodger fans not by pitching well against Los Angeles last season, but by doing so against other major league baseball teams as well. Had an better-than-average ERA for the first time since his 1997 rookie year - and was even stronger in 2004's second half. After allowing 66 home runs in 2002-03, he allowed 19 last season - fewer than one every 10 innings. Turning 32 in April, Tomko may have finally found himself. But the bet here is, with 64 walks against 108 strikeouts for the year, that he will settle in as the right-handed Kirk Rueter - at least, what Rueter used to be (see below).

Jerome Williams: Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle reports that the righthander has had five pain-free bullpen sessions this year, is healed from his 2004 surgery and has lost 22 pounds since last March. That leaves you with a healthy 23-year-old pitcher with an ERA+ of 116 in 260 career innings. He walks more than three batters per nine innings and strikes out fewer than six - not exactly dominant - but this remains a promising pitcher.

Kirk Rueter: The DIPS (Defense-Independent Pitching Statistics) nemesis may finally be heading for his fadeout after posting a 4.73 ERA in 2004 and 56 strikeouts in 190 1/3 innings. He has had two sub-par ERA seasons in a row and three in the past four. Only his name or injuries to others on the Giants' staff should keep him in the rotation for long. Better than Kazuhisa Ishii? Barely, if at all.

Brad Hennessey: The 25-year-old was in Single A ball at the end of 2003, but had a 3.56 ERA with AA Norwich and a 2.02 ERA with AAA Fresno before making seven starts with San Francisco, in which he allowed 15 baserunners per nine innings and a 4.98 ERA.

Jesse Foppert: Another sub-25 Giants starting candidate, Foppert recovered from Tommy John surgery most of last season, after a below-average 2003 debut. He made nine starts in the minors toward the end of the year, and the Marin Independent-Journal reports that he played winter ball in Puerto Rico as well. Could start the season in the bullpen or AAA.

Put it all together, and San Francisco's strengths are that they have one ace, one young pitcher who appears to have arrived, a veteran of decent quality and a second young propsect on the mend. On the down side, the remaining three candidates are a veteran on the decline and two propspects who may not be ready to excel in 2005.

The Giants will have plenty of arms to throw at the competition in 2005, but it's not the most intimidating group. The main advantage that San Francisco has over the Dodgers is that the health of its rotation is less uncertain. Should Brad Penny recover from his nerve problem, however, you have:

Jason Schmidt vs. Brad Penny
Noah Lowry vs. Odalis Perez
Brett Tomko vs. Jeff Weaver
Jerome Williams vs. Derek Lowe
Kirk Rueter vs. Kazuhisa Ishii
Brad Hennessey/Jesse Foppert vs. Edwin Jackson et al

Neither team is be a lock to win more games with its starting pitching than the other.

Coming soon: San Diego's starting rotation

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