After a breakout season, Kevin Gausman didn’t want to test free agency. Gausman ultimately accepted the qualifying offer of $18.9 million, making him a Giant for at least one more season. This offseason is going to be particularly bad for players, but with as few great starting pitchers there are available, one would think that someone who had the season Gausman just had wouldn’t be hit as hard. After all, Robbie Ray got a one-year, $8 million deal after an abysmal season while Brad Hand got his optioned declined and went unclaimed after a great one. Starting pitching will be in demand this winter whether or not it costs a draft pick. The market only got better for Jake Odorizzi and Masahiro Tanaka after Gausman took himself out of it.
Over the last two seasons, Gausman has thrown 162 innings to a 3.65 FIP. He’s struck out 27.7 percent of batters while walking just 6.9 percent. Those numbers include 16 starts where Gausman struggled* so much that Atlanta released him on waivers. Since leaving Atlanta, Gausman’s results have more closely matched the expectations, and the expectations are solid.
*Had an ERA two runs higher than his FIP.
Primarily a three-pitch pitcher, Gausman benefited from relying more heavily on his split-finger fastball which has always generating a high number of swings and misses. The slider has taken more of a backseat, and he mostly limits the pitch to 0-0 and two-strike counts. Like so many others, Gausman has gone up in the zone with his fastball more often, relying on his high spin to stay above hitters’ swing planes.
All of these adjustments have turned Gausman from a league-average starter into someone who was undeniably one of the three best starters on the free agent market. Of course, Gausman is no longer available after accepting the qualifying offer, and this is a lighter market for starting pitching than usual. Still, Gausman has become the sort of pitcher teams would have tried to lock up on a multi-year deal, draft pick penalty or no.
Now, the privilege of negotiating such a deal belongs solely to the Giants, and paying to keep Gausman around for the next three years or so is something they should strongly consider. San Francisco needs starting pitching in 2021 and beyond. The Giants have struggled to develop starting pitching in recent years. The last homegrown Giants starter to amass two career bWAR with San Francisco is Madison Bumgarner who was drafted in 2007. The only other starting pitcher to clock more than two lousy wins anywhere is Zack Wheeler who the Giants traded for a few months of Carlos Beltrán.
All that’s more of an indictment of the Brian Sabean/Bobby Evans regime and Farhan Zaidi and Scott Harris are calling the shots now, but it remains true that the Giants don’t have a lot of starting pitching in the organization. With Drew Smyly heading to Atlanta, the rotation behind Gausman looks like Johnny Cueto, Tyler Anderson, Logan Webb, and Tyler Beede when he returns from Tommy John surgery. In 2020, Cueto, Anderson, and Webb combined for a 4.40 FIP and just 1.8 fWAR. Cueto and Anderson are both free agents after 2021, and beyond them there’s not much reinforcement coming from the minors.
The Giants’ two highest ranked starting pitching prospects are Seth Corry and Sean Hjelle. Corry hasn’t pitched above Class-A, and Hjelle struggled in limited time at Double-A Richmond. In a normal season, both pitchers would have progressed to Double or even Triple-A, but the pandemic squashed a year of their development. The cancelation of the minor league season wasn’t a unique problem for the Giants, but the team also didn’t have a lot of viable options to add to the taxi squad either.
The offseason is still young, and there are still a handful of starters worth giving a multi-year deal. MLB Trade Rumors predicted the Giants would sign Trevor May to a two-year deal, and Jake Odorizzi, Masahiro Tanaka, and Trevor Bauer are still available. The addition of any of those pitchers wouldn’t make Gausman redundant beyond 2021 especially not with so much money coming off the Giants’ books after 2021. There’s never going to be a better time for the Giants to lock up Gausman beyond next year, and it should absolutely be a priority for them this winter.
Kenny Kelly is the managing editor of Beyond the Box Score.