Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Giant expectations accompany upgraded rotation

Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain before the start of their baseball game against Washington on Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in San Francisco.
Giants starting pitcher Matt Cain before the start of their baseball game against Washington on Friday, Aug. 14, 2015, in San Francisco. AP

Bruce Bochy was never in full panic mode, or if he was, he was keeping secrets. But the Giants manager and former catcher never disguises his immense appreciation for a strong starting rotation.

As his starting pitchers go, he often says, so goes the season.

And if he is still feeling a little queasy as Opening Day approaches, with memories of last year’s injury-riddled journey not completely molded into mothballs, Bochy is cautiously optimistic that 2016 will not be a repeat of 2015. Until further notice – or unless a significant injury setback occurs in the near future – his is the glass-half-full approach. Time heals wounds, and after a shaky spring, he hopes this applies to his starters.

“I definitely feel better than I did 10 days ago, with guys getting stretched out,” Bochy said. “(Madison) Bumgarner and (Matt) Cain were a bit behind. Johnny (Cueto) was a bit behind. It’s been an up-and-down spring for a few guys, but the health of the club is what we’re happy with. It’s good to have these guys start to come together at the right time.”

The same can be said for his infield. Unlike last spring, when the Giants experimented at third base and wondered how to fill the hole at second, the infield has morphed into a minor-league homage to scouting and homegrown player development. Matt Duffy emerged as a capable successor to the enormous – and enormously popular – third baseman Pablo Sandoval. Joe Panik owned second base until a stress fracture in his back interrupted his All-Star season and sidelined him for the final two months; he is healthy and back where he belongs.

With Brandon Belt entrenched at first – except for days when Buster Posey needs a break – and shortstop Brandon Crawford quietly augmenting his superb defense with increasing bursts of timely hitting, the infield is young and talented and seemingly set for years.

The outfield? That remains a curiosity. Hunter Pence, the emotional leader who led the National League in games played in 2013 and 2014, went on the disabled list three times last season and missed 110 games because of injuries. The rangy right fielder who runs like a deer but occasionally ignores headlights and danger signs, sat out 10 days in Arizona with a sore Achilles’ tendon. Newly acquired center fielder Denard Span and the oft-injured left fielder Angel Pagan both underwent offseason surgery, and when was the last time Pagan was ever truly healthy?

But back to the starters, to the pitchers whose performances most likely will dictate the fate of the Giants.

Bumgarner. Cueto. Jeff Samardzija. Jake Peavy. Cain.

Compared to the Opening Night rotation a year ago, with Cain (elbow, forearm), Peavy (hip, back), Tim Hudson (shoulder stiffness) and Tim Lincecum (hints of hip problems) all coping with various degrees of injuries, a recitation of his projected five starters evokes a slight grin from Bochy but no cartwheels. This was not exactly an issue-free, totally uplifting Arizona experience, either.

The Giants’ 6.87 ERA in the Cactus League ranked near the bottom, with Bumgarner struggling, Peavy claiming to be fit and healthy despite his garish numbers, and high-priced free-agent acquisitions Samardzija and Cueto impressive only in their final outings.

True, that dry desert air can be famously deceiving, but the real mystery man is Cain. The one-time franchise workhorse, the right-hander with the stamina to pull double shifts, had bone chips in his elbow removed and was reduced to spectator status while the Giants captured the 2014 World Series in Kansas City. Eager to regain his spot in the rotation last spring, he instead went on the disabled list three times and missed 94 games with nerve irritation and lingering forearm soreness. This latest comeback attempt was delayed, yet again, after he required surgery to remove a cyst on the inside of his right elbow.

“It’s definitely been tough,” Cain told reporters earlier in camp. “Injuries are something guys have to deal with through their career. You hope you don’t have to. I had such a long (healthy) stretch of not having to deal with it. For it to come in the latter part of a career definitely makes it difficult. You don’t bounce back the same way.”

As he chatted in the River Cats clubhouse Wednesday at Raley Field, Cain sounded considerably more upbeat. His arm strength has returned, he said, with his fastball ranging between the high 80s to low 90s – and with more pop. Most importantly, he is pitching pain-free for the first time in two years.

In his final preseason start Saturday against the A’s, he went five innings and allowed three runs (one earned) on two hits.

“No limitations,” he insisted.

If a Cain comeback fails to materialize? If Peavy experiences another setback? Bochy is pulling for his veterans and hoping for the best. But again, his optimism is tempered by real-time factors such as age and wear and tear. Chris Heston, the manager said, would be slotted into any potential opening.