Three takeaways on the San Francisco Giants’ search for bulk innings

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Last season, Jakob Junis and Tristan Beck combined for 171 innings and a 3.89 ERA. They started a combined seven games, but they also had a combined 38 outings of two innings or more. They saved bullpen arms in losses, and they kept games close enough to win. By Baseball-Reference’s WAR, they were worth only two wins or so, but it sure felt like their contributions were worth even more.

This season, the San Francisco Giants have been searching for replacements for Junis and Beck. And searching. And searching. Spencer Howard has earned more chances, but the carousel of rookies and youngsters hasn’t been effective at all. Mason Black, Keaton Winn, Landen Roupp, Kai-Wei Teng, Nick Avila, Mitch White and Daulton Jefferies were all tried, and they all struggled (with the last two getting designated for assignment). Sean Hjelle has been promoted to high-leverage reliever instead of spot starter and dedicated long man, and someone should get him a cake to celebrate, but that’s left a Junis-and-Beck-shaped hole in the bullpen again.

Here are three takeaways from the Giants’ continuing search for the effective starter-longman hybrid they love so much.

Hayden Birdsong is the lever they haven’t pulled yet (and probably don’t want to)

It’s still possible that the Giants’ future will include some combination of Black, Winn, Roupp and Teng, and it’s definitely possible that one or more of them become important parts of the rotation at some point. It’s not looking great for this year, though. Black had an advanced case of dingeritis in the majors, and it was almost certainly related to his imperfect command. Winn’s command has gone backward, which has made it too easy for hitters to ignore his splitters and wait for a fastball. Roupp is on the IL, and Teng has been completely unable to throw strikes, even in Triple A.

The next prospect up, then, is Hayden Birdsong, who impressed everyone in spring training and just got promoted to Triple-A Sacramento.

However, there are a few roadblocks to a major-league debut for Birdsong:

• He doesn’t need to be protected from the Rule 5 Draft until next offseason, so adding him to the 40-man roster would take away a spot from someone who needs to be protected this offseason.

• He’s a strong enough prospect that the Giants might not want to yo-yo him between roles. Kyle Harrison was never used as a longman or the multi-inning reliever who’d come in after an opener. He was plopped into the rotation when he was ready and kept there. That might be the plan for Birdsong when he’s ready.

• Birdsong’s command still needs work, which is important because he’s thrown more than 80 pitches just twice this season, and it’s easy to imagine major-league hitters forcing him into long innings.

It’s clear that he has major-league stuff, so it’s only going to get more tempting if he succeeds in Triple A. Still, if Birdsong gets the call, it’ll be because the law firm of Black, Winn, Roupp and Teng continue their struggles, or because he’s so dominant it would be malpractice not to promote him.

The 40-man roster is getting trickier and trickier

This isn’t just a Birdsong thing. There are only a couple of obvious DFA candidates on the 40-man roster right now, and after they make room, the easier 40-man decisions will dry up completely. The rest of the roster will be filled with veterans the Giants are counting on and young players they absolutely can’t give up on yet. This is why the decisions to add Black and Roupp to the 40-man roster this year, along with Wade Meckler last year, weren’t easy. Once players like that are on the roster, they aren’t coming off, at least not without other teams getting a chance to poach them.

It’s typically a sign of organizational strength to have a 40-man roster without any soft spots, but for the 2024 Giants, it also means that the young pitchers struggling this season will keep getting chances. The Giants don’t have much wiggle room, and while they don’t have a ton of players they might want to add before this offseason’s Rule 5 Draft, they’ll have to consider at least a few.

This will be working against prospect-types like Birdsong, Reggie Crawford and Carson Whisenhunt. Once they’re on the roster, they’re on it, and the Giants are running out of room. (May’s PCL Pitcher of the Month, Spencer Bivens, might be the needle-threading answer here. You know I’m in.)

The Giants have a pseudo-trade deadline built into their roster plans already

Not sure if you heard about the left-hander who made his debut in Rookie ball last week, but he struck out eight of the 10 batters he faced, and scouts say he has Cy Young Award potential. That would be Robbie Ray, who’s coming back from Tommy John surgery and could be a big part of the Giants’ second half. If he’s able to fill a rotation spot, along with a healthy Blake Snell, the Giants wouldn’t need to mess around with openers and spot starters. They’d have a dedicated five-man rotation like a normal team, if you can believe it.

There’s also Alex Cobb, and while his progress has been much slower than hoped (and the updates have been getting more and more ominous), it’s not out of the question that he’ll appear in the second half. The same goes for Beck, and both pitchers are currently throwing out to 120 feet. They’re not close to returning, but they’re getting closer.

Of course, when all of these pitchers do return, they’ll have to be taken off the 60-day IL and added to the roster. It’s gonna get crowded. That’s a problem, but it also might solve the problems discussed above?

It’s complicated. Baseball usually is.

(Photo of Birdsong: Andy Kuno / San Francisco Giants / Getty Images)

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