Evaluating the in-house rotation options for Padres

Aug 3, 2023; Bronx, New York, USA; New York Yankees relief pitcher Michael King (34) pitches against the Houston Astros during the sixth inning at Yankee Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Padres will have a very different-looking starting rotation in 2024. Who might be in the mix? The depth is a concern.

The offseason movement around the league has come to a screeching halt. The “Hot Stove” is as cold as that NFL playoff game in Kansas City. What if the Padres don’t make any more major moves? What if this is it for the options in the starting rotation?

Let’s take a look at who is in play to earn starts for San Diego. Keep in mind, the Padres have averaged 12.5 pitchers who made at least one start in the last two seasons. It takes a village.

Who will the Padres count on this season?

Let’s start with the obvious ones.

Joe Musgrove

Musgrove seems destined to be the Opening Day starter for the Padres. If he gets the nod, that will be the first time he’s done it in a Padres uniform, and he will be the third pitcher in the last four seasons to open the season for the Padres.

The El Cajon native had a very uneven 2023 campaign. It started with a weight landing on his foot in Spring Training, sidelining him for the first three weeks of the regular season. He then owned a 5.64 ERA in his first six starts until the end of May. In the 11 starts following that, he posted a much more Musgrove-like 1.88 ERA and 2.91 FIP over 67 innings.

Unfortunately, that is where his season ended. He was shut down after his start on July 28, which would end up being the final start of his 2023 season.

Now, Musgrove looks to a better, healthier 2024 atop the Padres rotation.

Yu Darvish

Much like Musgrove, Darvish also had a frustrating 2023 campaign plagued by injury. He tried pitching through it but clearly wasn’t healthy. In 24 starts, he posted the worst ERA and ERA+ he ever had in a full season, at 4.56 and 90, respectively. He was ineffective and was routinely hit hard.

Padres Yu Darvish
Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Questions arise on his durability, as he will turn 38 in August. He was shut down after his start on August 25. The Padres are on the hook for $83 million over the next five seasons. They need him to rebound in a big way.

Hopefully, a healthy offseason regimen gets him back on track to a quality 2024.

After these top two, things get a little murky.

Michael King

It’s safe to assume, at this point, King is firmly a part of their rotation. After all, he was the centerpiece of the return package of the trade that sent Juan Soto to the Yankees. There is certainly hope he can turn into a viable rotation piece. After spending parts of four seasons as a reliever in New York, he made nine starts for them towards the end of the 2023 season, with a solid 2.23 ERA and 11.4 strikeouts per nine innings.

The biggest question is, can he do it over a full season? He has only exceeded 70 innings once in his big league career and never more than 104. Going from that to the Padres, hoping he can shoulder a full season in the rotation (roughly 150 innings) is a very big ask.

He certainly has the stuff. His average exit velocity allowed, hard hit rate allowed, and strikeout rate were all 85th percentile or better last season. Batters slugged a microscopic .134 off of his changeup.

For King, it’s simply a matter of shouldering the increased workload.

Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Randy Vásquez

Another part of the Soto deal with New York may end up in the starting rotation. The 25-year-old lacks in MLB experience, having racked up less than 38 innings in his career. He appeared in 11 games for the Yankees last season, five of them being starts. Overall, they were positive results, with a 2.87 ERA. However, a peek under the hood reveals a 4.98 FIP to go with it (usually indicating some extreme good luck).

Vásquez is very much an unknown commodity at this point. His fastball sits in the low 90s. With four pitches, including an above-average curveball, he has the sufficient repertoire to make it work as a starter. Command has been an issue in the past.

The Padres likely will give the Dominican righty a shot to break into the starting rotation during this coming Spring Training.

Jhony Brito

A third option from the Soto deal is Brito. He made 13 starts for New York in his rookie campaign last season. In 25 total appearances, he posted a 4.28 ERA and 101 ERA+, perfectly average numbers. His arsenal contains four pitches- four-seamer, sinker, changeup, and curveball. He occasionally mixes in a slider/sweeper. He has quality velocity for a starting pitcher, usually sitting around 95-97 mph.

His numbers have been up and down, even during his minor league days. He is more of a pitch-to-contact type than one who will pile up strikeouts. He is also prone to some hard contact, which is not a good combination.

If things don’t work out for Brito in the rotation, he seems like a good candidate for a long relief role.

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Pedro Avila

Few options for the Padres had a better late-season audition than Avila in 2023. In 14 games, which included six starts, he posted a 3.22 ERA and 128 ERA+. Both of those are solid numbers for any starting pitcher. However, the questions for Avila are health and workload.

He actually had much better numbers as a reliever versus as a starter. In those six starts, he owned a 4.91 ERA. In eight relief appearances, that ERA dropped to 1.46.

Credit: AP Photo

Plus, he has never thrown more than 50 innings in a big league season. This is again, a question of how much can he shoulder?

His 60.3 percent ground ball rate is in the 98th percentile. He is above average at inducing weak contact. If Ruben Niebla can help him somehow extrapolate that into a full season of work at the big league level, the Padres have a valuable and controllable arm in Avila.

Matt Waldron

Waldron owned a 7.31 ERA in 92 innings at Triple-A last season. Then he gets to the big leagues and posts a 4.35 mark in 41 innings. He seems like your typical “Quadruple-A” pitcher, who will likely be somewhere between Triple-A and the big leagues most of his career. He made four straight starts for the Padres in the season’s final weeks, with a 5.23 ERA.

He will likely get a look this spring, but unless there is a major uptick in production, his ceiling seems to be as a depth piece standing by for a spot start or two.

Jay Groome

The concerning fact is Groome is the first lefty mentioned so far. The other concern is that Groome got absolutely shelled at El Paso last season, with an 8.55 ERA in 134 innings. The hope is, some of that can be attributed to El Paso and most of its league being played at high altitude (much like Waldron’s success in a small sample size).

Being that he is the only lefty remotely viable to be a starting pitcher currently on the roster, he can make a strong case in spring with some good outings.

Luis Patiño

The Padres claimed the former prized prospect from the White Sox last month. After being one of the centerpieces for Preller’s trade to acquire eventual Cy Young winner Blake Snell, he flamed out in Tampa Bay. He made just one start and eight relief appearances 2023 between the Rays and White Sox.

After being such a highly touted prospect, perhaps Preller thinks Niebla can work with Patiño to recapture what made him such an intriguing prospect. It seems the best-case scenario is that he is a viable long reliever or spot starter at this point.

Adrián Morejón

This one seems like even more of a longshot than Patiño. However, the longtime touted prospect is a lefty and has made actual big-league starts in his career. The main issue with the Cuban lefty is he is, frankly, almost never healthy. In parts of five seasons with the Padres, he has never pitched more than 34 innings. And he has never combined for more than 65 innings at any level in any given season. At this point, he might be best served as a lefty reliever specialist. But the most value he would bring is as a starter, even if those odds are very long at this juncture.

If the Padres don’t make any more additions, this is basically the list of options they have for starting pitchers in 2024. After the top two, plus maybe King, the list is grim. If the Padres want to field a competitive team in 2024, the rotation must be upgraded.

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