Blake Snell’s injury leaves the Giants scrambling for innings

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Wednesday’s series finale between the Giants and Mets had all the makings of a statement game. A win would have given the Giants a sweep. It would have gotten them to .500 for the first time since the opening series of the season. It would have come at home, in front of fans who have been waiting to get excited about the team.

The biggest statement of all, though, was going to be made with the starting pitching matchup. Last season, the Giants had Sean Manaea on a one-year Farhan Zaidi Special. This season, though, they have last year’s Cy Young Award winner on a Supercharged Farhan Special. Last season, the Mets were the free-spending team with dreams of a Cy-fueled rotation, but now they’re the team counting on Manaea, and it’s the Giants who are looking to ride their rotation to the postseason. A gem from Blake Snell would have felt even more meaningful than it otherwise might have.

There was a statement made, alright. It was four letters long. Exactly which four letters are up to you and your personal MPAA rating.

Snell went on the 15-day IL with a moderate adductor strain before he could make the start on Wednesday. While the injury shouldn’t keep him out more than a couple of weeks, the Giants’ immediate solution was a bullpen game, just like the ones everyone grew tired of last season. It didn’t work, in part because the Giants’ best long-reliever last season was throwing scoreless innings against them.

There’s no lesson to learn, no epiphany as you suddenly realize the smart baseball move was to keep Manaea instead of pursuing Snell. You didn’t believe that two months ago, and you don’t believe it now.

There are always lessons to remember, though. Namely that baseball has a sick sense of humor, and it will always love watching organizations scramble around like ants. The Giants had a bulk-innings problem before Wednesday, and now they have even more of one, as they’ll have to forage for innings and starts in a way they were hoping to avoid. Before the game started, Sean Hjelle and Landen Roupp were potential answers to the questions raised by Snell’s injury. A few innings and six combined earned runs later, they offered only more questions.

One of the lowest grades on the Giants’ early-season report card is the one that the bullpen has earned so far, except that’s not entirely fair. In terms of performance and runs allowed, Camilo Doval, Taylor Rogers, Tyler Rogers and Ryan Walker look similar to the pitchers they were last season, which means they look like the effective relievers the team was hoping for. They’ve had their hiccups and moments of unfortunate timing, but they still look like higher-leverage relievers.

It’s the long relievers who have struggled the most. When Giants relievers have had to pitch two or more innings this year, their ERA is 5.23, and this excludes some of the rougher outings where they couldn’t even make it two full innings. The Sacramento shuttle hasn’t worked so far. Kai-Wei Teng and Nick Avila have already been swapped out, but they didn’t look like short-term answers while they were in the majors. Roupp’s stuff will afford him patience in this season and future ones, but major-league hitters are sitting on his curveball and hoping he’ll make a mistake, which he inevitably will, considering that he’s so green that his next Triple-A start will be the first one of his career. Hjelle’s season ERA rose to 5.79, which makes sense, considering his career ERA in 25 major-league games coming into the game was 5.95.

(There’s at least a silver lining to the long-relief problem. One of the reasons the Giants are in this pickle is because Keaton Winn has graduated from throwing bulk innings to making excellent starts. Last year, he was part of the solution. This year, he’s a part of the problem, but in the best possible way.)

There are other options other than Teng, Avila, Roupp and Hjelle. Daulton Jefferies has been solid in Triple A since returning there. Mason Black has looked sharp in three of his four starts in Sacramento, and Carson Whisenhunt’s best start this season was his last one. Hayden Birdsong has a 2.38 ERA and 19 strikeouts in 11 1/3 innings in Double A, which is promising. Each of the last three would need to be added to the 40-man roster, but they’re certainly available if the Giants want to get bold. There’s also recent acquisition Mitch White, who has extensive starting experience and can throw multiple innings. Of course, he also hung a slider so bad on Wednesday that Keith Hernandez started making inappropriate noises before the batter even finished his swing.

So whether the Giants will continue to forge ahead with bullpen games, or if they’ll use one of these pitchers like a traditional-ish starter, the problem is the same. Having a lot of depth isn’t the same thing as automatically having useful depth. The first sentence on the possible bulk-innings depth from April 1 is holding up far too well:

The problem is that it takes sifting to find (effective emergency starters). Before the Giants discovered the sublime brilliance of (Yusmeiro) Petit in 2013, they gave starts to Mike Kickham*, who was worth negative-1.5 WAR in just 28 innings, 12 appearances and three starts. That entirely wiped out Petit’s contributions, at least on paper.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if the Giants ended the season with five starters they felt confident in.

It would be a major surprise if they felt that way at any point while Snell is on the IL.

In some respects, it’s impressive that the Giants are even close to .500, considering how little they’ve gotten out of some of their high-profile free agents. Six players have driven in as many runs in a single game has Jorge Soler has all season. Matt Chapman’s OPS is inching closer to .700, but it’s taking a while. Snell wasn’t effective when he was healthy, and now he won’t get a chance to fix what was wrong for a while. A lot of that has to change if the Giants are going to get over .500, though. Teams cannot live on Jordan Hicks and two-out RBIs from Nick Ahmed alone.

The emergence of Winn, the surprise of Hicks and the solid-if-unspectacular outings from Kyle Harrison have the Giants’ rotation in a better place than might have been expected without Snell. If anything changes there, though, the Giants will be hurting for quality innings unless they figure something out. It’s possible that they’ll do so, but of all the four-letter words that came out of Wednesday’s statement game, “Ouch,” was the most unwelcome one of all. It was already going to be a scramble for innings, and the stakes just got a lot higher.

(Photo of Sean Hjelle after giving up Tyrone Taylor’s home run: Kelley L Cox / USA Today)

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