SAN FRANCISCO -- Though the Giants' pursuit of free agents commands the most attention in their search for starting pitching, they'd welcome an old-fashioned upgrade: the emergence of a rookie who could occupy a spot at the end of the rotation and contribute immediately.
Chris Heston fit that description this past season for the Giants. Their talent evaluators believe Clayton Blackburn could be the first-year find for 2016.
Blackburn progressed substantially, winning nearly half as many games this year as he did in his previous four professional seasons. The right-hander finished 10-4 with a Pacific Coast League-leading 2.85 ERA in 23 appearances (20 starts) for Triple-A Sacramento. From 2011-14, Blackburn went 23-17.
"He has really turned a corner for us," Giants general manager Bobby Evans said of Blackburn, who's ranked 21st on MLB.com's list of the organization's top 30 prospects.
The source of Blackburn's improvement was evident. He stayed in better physical shape, as Bert Bradley, San Francisco's coordinator of Minor League pitching, emphasized.
"He always had some nagging injury," Bradley said Monday. In 2014, for example, a rib ailment and a cracked fingernail limited Blackburn to 20 starts, all but two of them with Double-A Richmond. Blackburn finished a combined 5-7 with a 3.31 ERA. His skill was obvious, but he couldn't stay healthy long enough to develop it.
This season was different. Listed at 260 pounds in the Giants' 2014 media guide, Blackburn trimmed his weight to 230 this year. That helped him broaden his pitching repertoire. His curveball, which was considered his best pitch, became even more formidable.
"He tightened it up and got to where he can throw it at different speeds now. He can throw it harder," Bradley said.
The Giants hope Heston and others advancing through the Minors such as Blackburn, who turns 23 on Jan. 6, can perpetuate the Giants' knack for developing starters. Illustrating the importance of this, San Francisco won three World Series with a different homegrown ace dominating each postseason: Tim Lincecum (2010), Matt Cain (2012) and Madison Bumgarner (2014).
During a tumultuous 2013, Heston arrived at Spring Training as a heralded prospect before being designated for assignment in July. He blossomed this year, finishing 12-11 with a 3.95 ERA in 31 starts, including a no-hitter June 9 against the Mets. Heston was the winningest Giants rookie since Cain went 13-12 in 2006. Also, Heston's 141 strikeouts were the club's most by a rookie since Lincecum amassed 150 in 2007.
The Giants also derive optimism from right-handers Tyler Beede and Chris Stratton, their No. 1 selections in 2014 and 2012 Drafts, and left-hander Ty Blach, who went 11-12 with a 4.46 ERA at Sacramento this season.
"There'll be a number of options for us," Evans said.