San Francisco Giants

Biggest question for Giants is Matt Cain’s health

Matt Cain is the longest-tenured player in the Giants’ clubhouse. As spring training commences for his 12th major-league season, the right-handed pitcher might also be the team’s biggest question mark.

Cain, the one-time ace of the Giants’ rotation, is at age 31 trying to regain a semblance of that form after elbow injuries cost him parts of the past two seasons. He is coming off of a season in which he recorded a 5.79 ERA in 60 2/3 innings, and is now seen as a supporting player on a staff that includes ace Madison Bumgarner and marquee winter additions Jeff Samardzija and Johnny Cueto.

“He’s a wild card for a lot of people,” Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti acknowledged last weekend. “But it’s going to be interesting because he’s going to be here to show he’s a number one kind of guy again. I’m excited to see it.”

Righetti admitted that “we don’t” know what to expect over a full season from Cain, who forged a reputation for unflinching durability before making just 26 starts over the past two seasons. But the coach caught a glimpse late last season of what might be called vintage Cain that gives him hope that a bounce-back year is imminent.

It came in Cain’s final start of 2015 against the Colorado Rockies, in which he threw five shutout innings and allowed two hits. Righetti said he kept the film of that start – on hard copy, despite the fact that game footage can easily be pulled up digitally these days – and is bringing it with him to spring training.

“It’s the way he went to certain spots (of the plate) that, to be quite honest, he wasn’t able to get to anytime last year except for early spring,” Righetti said.

One of the baffling things about Cain’s struggles last season was that despite the elbow issues he seemed to have maintained his velocity, often reaching the low 90s with his fastball. Righetti, though, said that reaching those speeds “was an effort” – whereas earlier in his career Cain could throw that hard with an easy delivery and concentrate on locating his pitches. Now he was reaching back for that velocity with adverse effects.

“The effort straightened the ball out and got the ball where it didn’t belong,” Righetti said. “When you’re trying to create any kind of speed, your ball’s not the same. You can’t pitch the same way.”

Righetti said Cain is at his best when he can locate pitches to the side of the plate across from his arm side – inside to left-handers and outside to righties. But his throwing style is such that sometimes his pitches tail back over the plate, becoming more hittable. That is what Righetti saw for much of last season, until that final start, when Cain again seemed to be locating on that outside corner.

Righetti hopes that start allowed Cain to “calm down” and sent him into the offseason on a positive note. Cain has spent more time over the past two years answering questions about his health than about his pitching, and the monotony of rehabbing from injury is something Righetti said can wear on a player. Cain agreed it was nice having an offseason that he didn’t have to spend getting healthy.

“I probably learned a lot about my body (the past two years), probably more than I wanted to know,” Cain said before last weekend’s FanFest at AT&T Park. “You’ve got to learn to work through bad starts and long stretches of them – that’s part of the game.”

Cain would like that chance. At last year’s FanFest event, Cain said he felt he failed to live up to his nine-figure contract with his performance since 2012, his last season with a winning record. Spending half of 2015 on the disabled list and making just 13 appearances did little to alleviate that feeling. If anything, Cain said, it intensified.

“It has, but it’s something where I can’t sit here and put that as the front-runner in my mind,” Cain said. “If I go out there and pitch healthy, physically and mentally I know what I’m capable of doing. I know that everything will work out the way it needs to. Pitch deep into games, get my innings and help out the guys the way I’m supposed to.”

Cain will report to spring training penciled into the back end of a rotation that the Giants hope will do a better job at pitching deep into games than the 2015 staff, given the reputations of Bumgarner, Cueto and Samardzija as innings eaters. Cain once owned that reputation as well, and as for goals for 2016, it’s a good place to start.

“We just hope that he’s able to take on past workloads, make all his starts, hopefully pitch 200 innings,” Giants vice president of baseball operations Brian Sabean said of Cain. “If he does that, no matter where he pitches in the rotation, we know he’s going to contribute well to the cause.”

Giants at spring training

  • Location: Scottsdale (Ariz.) Stadium
  • Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Thursday, position players, Tuesday
  • First game: March 2, vs. Angels, 12:05 p.m.
  • Opening Day: April 4, at Milwaukee, 11:10 a.m.
  • Home opener: April 7, vs. L.A. Dodgers, 1:35 p.m.
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