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Giants not dismissing final rotation spot

Whether on current roster or not, No. 5 man expected to perform

By Chris Haft / MLB.com

Wednesday, November 9, 2011 1:45 PM PT

Barry Zito SAN FRANCISCO -- The virtually annual pursuit for the No. 5 spot in a ballclub's starting rotation often receives too much attention.

With the Giants, the competition is worth the hype.

Typically, the fifth starter possesses limited prestige. His turn to pitch tends to get skipped when scheduled off-days loom. He prompts low expectations and often bears even lower status, making him prone to being replaced in the rotation or demoted to the Minors. But the role seems to be vacant with nearly every club each Spring Training, making it a convenient topic of discussion.

With the Giants, it's different.

The fifth starter is expected to win, just like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain, the rotation's pillars. San Francisco didn't automatically assign the role to Barry Zito after dealing potential No. 5 starter Jonathan Sanchez and Minor League pitcher Ryan Verdugo to Kansas City for outfielder Melky Cabrera. The experienced Zito will likely emerge as the Giants' best option for the role. But management wants to consider alternatives first. Asked after Monday's trade whether the Giants have sufficient depth to complement the rotation following Sanchez's departure or will seek another candidate or two, general manager Brian Sabean said, "That's [a] topic we'll discuss."

The Giants' serious approach to the fifth starter's spot has remained evident during their three consecutive winning seasons. In 2009, after Randy Johnson -- who wasn't the fifth starter -- injured his left shoulder in July, the Giants obtained veteran Brad Penny for the September stretch drive instead of continuing to rely on rookies Ryan Sadowski and Joe Martinez.

Todd Wellemeyer opened 2010 as the No. 5 man in San Francisco's rotation but never started again after injuring his right quadriceps on June 10. Martinez briefly replaced Wellemeyer before Madison Bumgarner arrived from Triple-A Fresno to post a 7-6 record in 18 starts and help the Giants win the National League West. Bumgarner added victories in the National League Division Series and World Series.

Bumgarner began last season as the fifth starter but technically moved up when Zito injured his right foot in mid-April. In came Ryan Vogelsong, who officially occupied the No. 5 spot but performed like an ace while winning nine of his first 10 decisions.

Now, the Giants need somebody to complete the contingent of Lincecum, Cain, Bumgarner and Vogelsong. Zito is the obvious choice at this juncture. Due to earn $19 million in the penultimate season of his seven-year, $126 million contract, Zito is coming off an injury-wracked season in which he finished 3-4 with a 5.87 ERA. He showed considerable promise during one three-start stretch this past season, winning each outing and posting a 1.29 ERA between June 28 and July 7. But the left-hander slumped drastically in his next three appearances, going 0-3 with a 10.91 ERA.

Eric Surkamp will attempt to push Zito for the job, though Sabean said during his end-of-season summary that he didn't think the rookie left-hander was ready to perform full-time in the Majors. Surkamp earned a late-season trial with the Giants after going 10-4 with a 2.02 ERA and 165 strikeouts in 142 1/3 innings in 23 starts at Double-A Richmond. He was 2-2 with a 5.74 ERA in six appearances, striking out just 13 and walking 17 in 26 2/3 innings. Like Zito, Surkamp must locate his fastball precisely and avoid elevating his pitches to remain effective.

A long-shot candidate is left-hander Dan Runzler, who'll probably stay in the bullpen. Runzler started 10 games at Triple-A, which offered an opportunity to develop his array of pitches. He allowed four runs in 1 2/3 innings in an Aug. 21 start at Houston, but his rocky performance was understandable given his relative inexperience as a starter.

The list of starters available in free agency consists almost exclusively of pitchers who fit a No. 5 man's profile. The group includes Erik Bedard, Chris Capuano, Aaron Cook, Doug Davis, Jeff Francis, Jon Garland, Livan Hernandez, Rodrigo Lopez, Paul Maholm, Dontrelle Willis and Chris Young.

Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.