Free-agent starting pitching options for the Padres

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Mandatory Credit: David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

After a grueling and injury-riddled baseball season, the Padres have a lot of issues to address.

One of the many issues the San Diego Padres need to address this offseason is starting pitching. If one old baseball adage was proven last season, it was the notion that you can never have enough pitching. The Padres ended the season with multiple waiver wire pickups starting games in September, not exactly a template for winning. 

The Padres will bring Yu Darvish, Joe Musgrove, Blake Snell, Chris Paddack, and Ryan Weathers. In addition, returning from injury will be Mike Clevinger. On paper, just like last season, the Padres starting rotation looks really good. However, these pitchers should not be the only ones relied upon to get through the season. The Padres need to learn from the mistakes of last season.

First and foremost, the Padres will never be able to get 30 starts from any pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery, even 18 months removed like Clevinger. Chris Paddack received injections in his throwing elbow due to a UCL sprain. Darvish battled through back and hip issues all last season, and Snell ended the season on IL after a groin strain.

Will all of these pitchers, coming off some sort of injury, be able to start 30 plus games next season? Not likely.

The Padres do have other options that would include prospects such as MacKenzie Gore, Pedro Avila, and Reiss Knehr. Returning from injury later in the season will be Adrian Morejon and Jacob Nix. Unfortunately, no one in this group can be relied upon to make a dozen starts and theoretically keep the Padres in a playoff hunt. Not that it couldn’t happen, but that it shouldn’t be the only safety net if one of the original starting rotation members becomes unavailable.

The easy option would be to sign a free agent.

This winters free agent class features Max Scherzer, Marcus Stroman, and Carlos Rodon. However, the Padres already have the highest payroll in team history by a wide margin. There are few contracts coming off the books, and as many as 13 players are getting raises in arbitration. Therefore, to acquire a top pitching free agent wouldn’t leave any money to upgrade the rest of the Padre roster. 

Several free-agent starting pitchers wouldn’t break the bank but also come with certain issues. The Padres would be wise to go after one of these lottery tickets in hopes of finding a winner. Let’s take a look at a few of the options.

Justin Verlander

A name many baseball fans will recognize is Justin Verlander. At one point considered the best pitcher in baseball, Verlander hasn’t pitched since injuring his UCL in the first game of 2020. He’s also turning 39 before the start of the 2022 season. There are some concerns. 

Verlander could be given a qualifying offer by the Houston Astros, meaning if another team signs him, they also have to forfeit a draft pick to the Astros. According to Buster Olney of ESPN, the qualifying offer has been set at $18.4 million. If the Astros do not make that offer, there will be several teams interested in Verlander’s services.

Credit: USA Today Sports

Make no mistake, Verlander is a very high-risk signing. He will almost certainly not be able to throw 200 dominant innings next season. However, it is conceivable he could throw around 100 good innings for a contender, maybe more. There’s no guarantee he returns to anywhere near Cy Young form either, but he could be very good for less than $20 million. He’s a good option, but there are better ones out there with far less risk or cost.

Noah Syndergaard

Another player coming off injury is Noah Syndergaard. Like Verlander, he comes with significant risk. Thor has had trouble staying healthy for most of his MLB career but finally made it through 2019 without going on the IL. He started 32 games and pitched 197.2 innings, which were both career highs.

Syndergaard has struggled a bit with home runs in 2019. Between 2016 and 2018, his HR/9 was .5, very good. In 2019 it jumped to 1.1, and his ERA  jumped to 4.28, also a career-high. To top off his lackluster season, he underwent Tommy John surgery for a torn UCL.

After a few setbacks, Syndergaard was only able to pitch two innings in 2021. With a normal offseason, he should be ready to start games as soon as Opening Day 2022. The question is, which version of Syndergaard will he be? The talent is certainly there, it’s just a matter of whether or not he can stay healthy and get back to pitching like he did in 2016.

Syndergaard also can be offered a qualifying offer by the Mets, further complicating his situation. He and his representatives are likely only looking for a one-year deal anyway. A bounce-back year for him could very easily get him a $100+ million contract next winter. If the Mets do extend him that qualifying offer, it’s logical he takes it. If the Mets choose not to, the Padres could make a risky yet calculated choice to sign him. The contract could be a lower guaranteed salary but include performance incentives to entice Syndergaard to join the Swinging Friars. 

Corey Kluber

Originally drafted by the Padres in 2007, the Padres may consider signing Corey Kluber. The two-time Cy Young Award winner signed a one-year $11 million deal with the New York Yankees for 2021. Kluber had health issues as he only pitched 80 innings and ended with a 3.83 ERA.

The highlight of his season was no doubt May 19, when he pitched a no-hitter against the Texas Rangers. On May 25, he came out of the game early with what turned out to be a strain in his throwing shoulder that sidelined him for 60 days. He did return to make six starts at the end of the season for the Yankees. If Kluber could pass a medical exam, the Padres should consider signing him to a similar deal he received last year. The 35-year-old could be a solid contributor for the Padres during the long, grueling season and may be able to maintain his health for a full season. 

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James Paxton

After the last two seasons were cut short by injury, James Paxton looks to make a comeback in 2022. Last season, he signed an $8.5 million deal with the Mariners in hopes of having a bounce-back season. However, his season ended after only one game, making it six total games in the past two seasons for the lefty.

After Tommy John surgery last April, he won’t be available on Opening Day but could be available mid-season. Due to this fact and his long list of injuries, Paxton can be signed at a very affordable price. Albeit with a very large risk. At his best, Paxton is a solid middle-of-the-rotation pitcher. Unfortunately, injuries have slowed him his entire career, only reaching 28 games twice in 2018 and 2019.

The Padres could sign Paxton to a one-year deal around $3 million with a team option for 2023. If Paxton shows promise, they could keep him around for another year. Of these four pitchers listed, Paxton is certainly the highest risk but would also come with the lowest cost. This could be enticing to a Padres club that is tight on payroll.

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All in all, the Padres have options to add to the starting rotation without breaking the proverbial bank.

These men would allow A.J. Preller to focus on other parts of the roster that need addressing. Concerns such as the outfield and bullpen. The cheaper options all come with risk, but if the Padres can sign the correct pitcher, it could pay huge dividends next season. 

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