Look at Giants’ roster battles, part 1: The No. 5 starting pitcher

Yaaaaaaaaawwwwwn. What time is is?

March 7? Well, I guess it’s time MoreSplashHits emerged from our winter baseball hibernation and start blogging about the San Francisco Giants.

Let’s start with some key positions battles as the Giants work toward their opening day 25-man roster for their April 2nd opener in Arizona.

And we’ll begin with the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation.

This past offseason, the Giants lost three members of the Three Ring Club – i.e. players who were on all three of the Giants World Series championship teams of 2010, 2012 and 2014 – when Sergio Romo left to sign with the Dodgers, Santiago Casilla left to sign with Oakland and Javier Lopez retired.

That leaves just three remaining – Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Matt Cain.

The big question now is whether or not Cain will be part of that club when the team opens the season in less than four weeks.

The Giants certainly hope so. Cain is in the final guaranteed year of the five-year contract he signed prior to Opening Day in 2012. The Giants owe him $28.5 million between the $21 million for 2017 and the $7.5 buyout of the $21 million option for 2018 that the Giants are certain to pay Cain.

But the Giants will pay Cain that money whether he’s pitching for them or not. And now the 32-year-old right-hander must prove he can recapture some of his old form.

Cain is the longest-tenured Giant, making his debut in 2005. When the Giants signed him to that five-year contract in 2012, it started out looking like a good deal.

In 2012, Cain had a career year, going 16-5 with 2.79 ERA. He started the All-Star Game, placed sixth in Cy Young voting, threw a perfect game that June and started all three of the Giants’ postseason clinching series.

He was the Opening Day starter in 2013, but got completely lit up in his second start that season. And things didn’t get much better.

After going 14-8, 13-11, 12-11, 16-5 In 2009-2012, he’s gone 8-10, 2-7, 2-4 and 4-8 since. His ERA, which was 2.89, 3.14, 2.88 and 2.79 from 2009-12, has inflated to 4.00, 4.18, 5.79 and 5.64 since.

He’s struggled to stay healthy and the early returns this spring did not been good.

His fastball lacked life and location. And with decreased velocity over recent seasons, Cain has to have command to be successful.

Luckily for Cain, the World Baseball Classic has prolonged spring training this season, which will give him more time to get himself ready.

In Cain’s third spring start on Monday, things appeared to make a turn for the better. Cain became the first Giants pitcher to throw into the fourth inning this spring, giving up two runs on two hits in 3.1 innings pitched.

The first run Cain allowed was aided by a bloop single that Hunter Pence lost in the sun. The second run came in when Cain walked the final batter he faced, and Ty Blach allowed an RBI double two batters later.

Blach followed with 2.2 scoreless innings of work, allowing three hits.

Make no mistake: The Giants want Cain to win the No. 5 spot. Loyalty and sentimentality aside, they feel better off with Cain in the No. 5 hole, Albert Suarez in the long-man role and lefty Ty Blach in Triple-A in reserve.

But Cain must show he can get big-league hitters out. And in the early results, Blach has shown a better ability to do that.

Blach impressed the Giants late last year by sporting a 1.06 ERA in four games – two starts – earning a spot on the postseason roster. The 26-year-old lefty would be the Giants’ No. 1 option if Cain falters, although Suarez, former top prospect Clayton Blackburn or current top prospect Tyler Beede would be options.

But Monday’s outing seemed to show Cain is starting to work things out.

“I feel like we’re moving in the right direction,” Cain said. “Instead of sitting there hoping I can physically make the next start, it’s nice to be able to work on things between starts and be able to fine-tune things.”

It should be noted that the lineup the Indians rolled out Monday we made up for mostly players who are not expected to make the big-league roster.

Giants manager Bruce Bochy noted that the Giants could consider keeping Blach on the big-league roster in a relief role. Blach has been relieving Cain in the previous two starts, but Monday was his first in which Blach came in mid-inning.

“I think a guy like Tyler can give you some different options,” said Bochy, who proceeded to name them: starting, working in long relief, becoming a specialist against opposing left-handed batters, or being the first man out of the bullpen in the sixth or seventh inning.

It’s an interesting revelation as the Giants’ bullpen options are limited in lefties. Right now, they are limited to Will Smith, almost certain to make the big-league club, and Josh Osich, who is less certain. Steven Okert is another lefty bullpen option.

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