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Column: Giants can still flex their big arms

Jeff Samardzija
Giants starter Jeff Samardzija was chased by the Dodgers in the fifth inning Saturday, but he has a 7-4 record and a 3.33 earned-run average this season.
(Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)

It was late in the afternoon, on the first Friday in December. The baseball world had been stunned by the breaking news: Zack Greinke had agreed to sign with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Larry Baer, the president of the San Francisco Giants, sent a text message to his counterpart with the Diamondbacks, Derrick Hall.

“Congratulations,” Baer texted. “We certainly wasted a lot of brain cells on this one.”

However, the Giants wasted no time pivoting to Plan B. Within 24 hours, they had agreed to terms with Jeff Samardzija. Within 10 days, they had added Johnny Cueto.

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The Dodgers, like the Giants, ardently pursued Greinke. How each team responded to his decision to sign with Arizona could go a long way in determining which team wins the National League West — in a season where tanking in the other two divisions could leave this one without the consolation prize of a wild card for the runner-up.

The Dodgers have issues beyond starting pitching, to be sure. The Dodgers’ starters have the same earned-run average as the Giants’ starters – 3.48 – and the Dodgers have Brandon McCarthy and Hyun-Jin Ryu on minor league rehabilitation assignments. 

It is the Dodgers’ offense, not the Dodgers’ pitching, that ranks among the bottom half in the league. Since those giddy first three games of the season – when the Dodgers punked the San Diego Padres, 25-0 – the Dodgers have been outscored by the Padres. 

On the day after the Giants nabbed Samardzija, the Dodgers agreed to terms with Hisashi Iwakuma, but the deal collapsed over concerns about his physical examination. In the final two days of 2015, the Dodgers added Scott Kazmir and Kenta Maeda.

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The Dodgers have Clayton Kershaw atop their rotation, the Giants have Madison Bumgarner atop theirs. Kershaw leads the league with a 1.52 ERA, Bumgarner is third at 1.88. 

Cueto is sixth at 2.16. He said the Dodgers never offered him a contract.

“They were telling me to wait,” he said through an interpreter.

Cueto signed for six years and $130 million, Samardzija five years at $90 million. The Dodgers did not have interest in signing either pitcher at those numbers, according to a person granted anonymity to discuss confidential negotiations.

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Bobby Evans, the Giants’ general manager, thought back to that first Thursday in December. He did not sleep well that night, aware that Greinke was about to make his decision and that the Giants had not blown away other bidders. As it turned out, the Dodgers and Giants had made similar bids – each for five years, each in the range of $155 million to $160 million.

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“Based on our negotiations with Greinke, we really weren’t able to create the separation that he was looking for, in terms of a much different deal than he was being offered elsewhere,” Evans said. “It felt a lot like he was going to go back to where he was comfortable at home, in L.A., just because there wasn’t really anything that was financially separating us.”

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The Diamondbacks separated themselves from the pack, with a sixth year and an additional $50 million. The Giants lured Samardzija the next day, but Evans said that move was not strictly in response to losing Greinke. He said the Giants could have afforded Greinke and Samardzija.

On Saturday, for the first time this season, Samardzija failed to complete five innings. However, what he and Cueto do well is pitch deep into games, preventing a team from exposing a weak bullpen or exhausting an increasingly tired one.

The league leaders in pitches this season: Cueto, Bumgarner, Kershaw and Samardzija, in order.

“We were, quite frankly, a mess last year at getting innings out of our starters,” Giants bench coach Ron Wotus said. “That puts a strain on your bullpen.”

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There were six starters available in free agency last winter not hampered by injury and coming off a 200-inning season. The Boston Red Sox signed David Price, for $217 million. The Diamondbacks signed Greinke, for $206 million. The Detroit Tigers signed Jordan Zimmermann, for $110 million. The Chicago Cubs signed John Lackey, for $32 million.

The Giants signed Cueto and Samardzija, for a total of $220 million. 

“The workhorses that both are – 200-plus innings, multiple times – that’s not an easy thing to do,” Evans said. “There’s a lot of guys that aren’t doing that in this game.

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“We looked at every metric and every advantage they would have coming here, everything we could study from video to the relevant analytics. There’s a lot of predictors. With the careers that they have had, there’s a lot of benchmarks to help you understand who they are and who they can be.”

Jake Peavy, who starts against the Dodgers on Sunday, said the Giants put faith in track records as much as any team in baseball.

“It’s the consistency and experience,” he said. “That’s what’s valued here as much as anything. I don’t see a ton of experience being valued in the game today, with numbers taking control.”

Peavy pitched in the American League East when Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, ran the Tampa Bay Rays and delighted in beating the financial Goliaths of that division. Peavy said he had no doubt Friedman and his staff would do as well in Los Angeles.

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“I have a lot of respect for that front office and what they bring to the table,” Peavy said. “I also know it’s very numbers-heavy. 

“You don’t know what numbers they’re looking at that made them make their decision. The numbers have money. They’ll spend it wisely.”

This is June, and there are pitchers the Dodgers can go get in July, if need be. The Giants do not appear to have the pitching depth that the Dodgers do, but their big three are holding strong. If the Dodgers are going to win the division for a fourth consecutive year, Kershaw cannot be the only starter that shows up in the eighth inning.

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter: @BillShaikin

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