SAN FRANCISCO -- For years, Giants baseball has been associated mostly with one characteristic. Sure, Buster Posey is now one of the game's best players, and the lineup is very deep. But ask anyone in baseball why the Giants have won two of the past three titles and you'll get the same answer.
"We're only going to go as far as the starting pitching is going to take us," reliever Jeremy Affeldt said.
As they headed to Thursday's off day, the Giants were still trying to figure out who would join that all-important group. Ryan Vogelsong had surgery on a fractured right pinkie finger on Tuesday and will be out at least six weeks. In the general manager's office, Brian Sabean is looking at a different time frame.
"I don't think that's realistic," Sabean said during an appearance on "Chronicle Live" this week. "I think it's much longer than that. If I had to guess, I'd think it's seven to 10 weeks."
For a group that made 160 combined starts last season, Vogelsong's absence leaves huge shoes to fill, even if he was off to a slow start this season.
The Giants have several options, starting in the big leagues with long reliever Chad Gaudin. The veteran right-hander has a 2.08 ERA, but both manager Bruce Bochy and Sabean pointed out this week that Gaudin is extremely valuable to a bullpen that often has to make up for short starts by Tim Lincecum and Barry Zito.
In the minors, Shane Loux and Mike Kickham are thought to be the top options. Loux, a 33-year-old right-hander, had been pitching well for Triple-A Fresno before giving up seven earned runs on Wednesday night. Kickham, 24, is the organization's fifth-best prospect, according to Baseball America -- a tall, lanky left-hander who throws a low 90s fastball and has a deceptive delivery. Kickham allowed one run in 61/3 innings in Thursday night's start for the Grizzlies and has a 1.72 ERA in his past five appearances.
Sabean said the Giants are leaning in one direction, although the plan could change after just one start. With three off days in the first 10 days of June, the Giants have plenty of flexibility, and Sabean said the team might "go start to start through the next part of the schedule."
The recently completed part of the schedule shows just how important it is for the Giants to have their starters on track. The Giants took three of four from the first-place Atlanta Braves in large part because Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Lincecum gave up three runs over 22 combined innings in the three victories. They then went 1-5 on a road trip to Toronto and Denver that ended with an unsightly 9.82 ERA by the starting pitchers. While taking two of three this week from the Washington Nationals, the team picked by many to win the World Series, the Giants rode a starting staff that gave up just three runs in 19 innings.
"This is more of our baseball," Bochy said after the series with the Nationals.
While the Giants starters are more inconsistent than they've been in the past, they're clearly talented enough to lead the way against the best the National League has to offer.
Regardless of who takes the No. 5 spot, the other four starters know that the Giants can't afford a repeat of the recent road trip. Even with a strong series against the Nationals, the Giants rank 13th in the N.L. in starters' ERA (4.64).
The five starters met at times early in the season to discuss the need to pitch better, but when Vogelsong went down, nothing was said.
"We all know what we've got to do," Bumgarner said. "There's no need to say anything."
Asked about his fellow starters, Vogelsong looked around the clubhouse and pointed out that many of the key contributors were around when Posey suffered a season-ending injury in 2011.
"This team is resilient," he said. "I fully expect them to keep winning games, and hopefully I can come back and help down the stretch. We're going to be fine."