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Cain’s tenure in Giants rotation nearing an end



In the midst of his 13th season with the San Francisco Giants, right-hander Matt Cain started the team’s Independence Day contest at Comerica Park in Detroit under remarkably different circumstances than the last time Cain pitched in the Motor City.

On Tuesday, a struggling Cain took the ball for the Giants nearly five years after he started Game 4 of the 2012 World Series against the Tigers, a game that extended into 10 innings before San Francisco clinched its second championship in three seasons.

It was only fitting the Giants handed the ball to Cain in their quest to close out the Tigers, as his 16-5 record and 2.78 regular season earned run average made him the clear ace on a San Francisco staff that boasted four different 14-game winners and five starters who all threw at least 180 innings.

With the 2017 Giants resting 18 games below .500 ahead of their early July trip to Detroit, it was also fitting that manager Bruce Bochy turned to Cain on Tuesday, as his decline is symbolic of the way San Francisco has fallen apart this season.

Back in 2012, Cain carried the Giants through the months of May and June, winning seven straight starts and dropping his ERA as low as 2.27 before the All-Star break. Over the past two months of this season, Cain has lost seven straight decisions while his ERA has ballooned to 5.58, a sure-fire sign that his days in the Giants’ rotation are coming to an end.

While the exact point at which the Giants will remove Cain from their regular rotation is uncertain, San Francisco has little reason to start Cain every five days other than to show the longest-tenured Giants player the loyalty and respect he commands at this point in his career.

Though Cain doesn’t even have the highest ERA among Giants’ starters –that distinction belongs to lefty Matt Moore– Cain is running out of reasons to keep the Giants invested in his outings.

At some point in July, perhaps as soon as the Giants’ first series after the All-Star break, left-handed ace Madison Bumgarner will return to San Francisco’s rotation and force Bochy’s hand. The Giants’ manager won’t use a six-man rotation –nor should he– to accommodate Cain, which means the 13th year veteran could find himself in a bullpen role in what is practically destined to be his final campaign with the orange and black.

Bumgarner’s return does not guarantee Cain’s removal from the Giants’ rotation, as an injury to a starter, or a trade involving a hot commodity like right-hander Johnny Cueto could buy the Alabama native some additional time. However, even if San Francisco does need to rely on Cain for a few extra starts, it’s hard to envision the 32-year-old making it through the entire season as a starter.

Come September –or perhaps even earlier– Giants’ management will want to see what 2015 first round draft choice Tyler Beede looks like against Major League hitters. San Francisco also would have likely looked at another top prospect, Joan Gregorio, in the rotation when rosters expand, but Gregorio was hit with a season-long suspension for steroid use last week that put an end to those plans.

Nevertheless, Beede’s time is approaching, and he may not be the only prospect Giants’ management decides needs a shot in the rotation before the season ends.

Will Cain accept a demotion to the bullpen? Will the Giants even find a spot for Cain as a reliever, or will the franchise abruptly decide it can’t afford to cling onto its past while getting a head start on its future?

Cain’s start in Detroit was a trip down memory lane, and a reminder of what better days looked like for the franchise and the player. For years, Cain’s live fastball and steady presence on the mound personified all that was right with the Giants, a team built on pitching and led by homegrown talent that thrived in the spacious confines of AT&T Park.

Even though Cain probably feels as if he has more to offer, these days, his fastball has lost its bite, his breaking balls are bending into barrels, and he has now become a bridge to the next era.

Barring an unforeseen turnaround, a slew of injuries or a flurry of transactions, Cain’s days in the Giants rotation are all but numbered. At some point this year, Cain will lose his spot in the starting rotation, and the Giants will turn a page that’s kept them captivated for 13 years.

While he’s not a building block for the future, when Cain departs, the Giants will be able to celebrate the past, and properly honor a player who’s been a pillar for the franchise for over a decade.

Soon though, honoring Cain will no longer mean honoring a commitment to watch him start every five days. The end is near, and for a team and a player struggling through a harsher decline than anyone expected, all the Giants can hope for is a smooth transition and a soft landing.