Ryan Vogelsong looked as though he had finally figured things out on Monday night for the San Francisco Giants. After a brutal start to the season, Vogelsong cruised through five scoreless innings against the Washington Nationals to lower his ERA from 8.06 to 7.19.
Vogelsong's dreams of a recovery from his brutal beginning to the season were then shattered along with his right hand. Vogelsong was struck with the ball while taking a swing during his at-bat in the bottom of the fifth inning.
According to Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle, Vogelsong will likely be out for four to eight weeks with a fractured right hand. Vogelsong's wife, Nicole, confirmed via Twitter that he will undergo surgery Tuesday and be out for six weeks.
The Giants entered the season without a viable Plan B in the event of an injury to a starting pitcher. The Giants received 160 starts from the starting five last year, but that injury luck ran out on Monday night.
The Giants don't have an effective, experienced starter whom they can turn to in the minor leagues.
Long reliever Chad Gaudin could be an option to replace Vogelsong given his experience as a starter. However, removing him from the bullpen would weaken that unit without definitely upgrading the rotation. Gaudin has a 4.72 career ERA in 409.2 innings as a starter.
The Giants could seek an alternative outside of the organization. However, with more than two months until the trading deadline, a robust market for starting pitching probably doesn't exist yet. It's unclear if any alternative on the current trade market would be an upgrade over Gaudin or someone already in the system.
Instead of looking to Gaudin or the trade market, the Giants should turn to Michael Kickham to replace Vogelsong in the rotation. What Kickham lacks in experience, he makes up for with his excellent stuff.
Kickham entered the season as the organization's sixth-best prospect, according to Marc Hulet of FanGraphs. Hulet wrote of Kickham:
Kickham doesn’t have quite the same fastball velocity that fellow southpaw Josh Osich has but it still touches 94 mph and he has a chance to stick in the starting rotation. He also has better secondary stuff: a plus slider, average curveball and developing changeup. Kickham has a strong pitcher’s frame and pitched 150 innings in 2012. ...The lefty spent all of 2012 in double-A when he produced very impressive numbers, including a strikeout rate of 8.18 K/9 and an above-average ground-ball rate. ... He has the ceiling of a No. 4 starter.
Jason Parks, a prospect expert for Baseball Prospectus, wrote of Kickham (via Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated):
The 24-year-old has good stuff from the left-side—including a plus fastball—with feel and utility for a deep secondary arsenal. Some scouts think Kickham would be a better fit in the bullpen, where his velocity could play up and his command issues could play down, but he has the body and the arsenal to develop into a back of the rotation workhorse. Either way, Kickham is a major-league arm and should see action in 2013.
Kickham is currently second in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League with 50 strikeouts in 47.2 innings of work. He's also been pitching extremely well of late after a rough start to the season. Over his last four starts, he's put up a 1.80 ERA while striking out 25 against just six walks over 25 innings of work.
Kickham had an outstanding year at Double-A Richmond last year. He put up a 3.05 ERA while striking out 137 hitters in 150.2 innings of work.
His control was his biggest weakness entering this season. He's cut his walk rate from 4.5 walks per nine innings pitched (W/9) last season down to 3.6 W/9 so far this year. That's still too high of a walk rate, but it shows that Kickham is trending in the right direction with his control.
Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area wrote Sunday that Gaudin would be the first option if the Giants needed to give a starter a break. However, given the length of time Vogelsong will be out, the Giants should leave Gaudin in the pen and turn to Kickham.
Kickham might not be quite as ready for the big leagues as the Giants would want in an ideal world. Alas, Vogelsong's fractured right hand shattered any notion of an ideal world on Monday night.
The Giants' lack of a viable sixth starter has put them in a bind. The best solution to ride the Vogelsong injury out is to give the ball to the organization's best arm in the upper minors in Kickham.
Kickham will have his struggles if he's called upon by the Giants, just as he did to open the season for Fresno. However, his low-90s fastball and assortment of off-speed stuff have helped him miss bats throughout his minor league career. If the Giants give Kickham the opportunity to settle in at the big league level, he can give them more upside than Gaudin because of his swing-and-miss stuff.
The Giants don't need the eventual replacement to match the 3.05 ERA that Vogelsong gave them over the past two seasons or the 1.09 ERA he put up over four postseason starts last year. They just need someone to keep them afloat and provide some stability for the next six weeks.
Leaving Gaudin in the bullpen and turning to Kickham is the best among the few options on the table right now for the Giants.