Grading the Padres: Starting Pitchers

Padres Yu Darvish

Sep 23, 2021; San Diego, California, USA; San Diego Padres starting pitcher Yu Darvish (11) pitches against the San Francisco Giants during the third inning at Petco Park. Mandatory Credit: Ray Acevedo-USA TODAY Sports

Mandatory Credit: Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

San Diego Padres owner Peter Seidler deemed the end to the 2021 season a “once in a century collapse” as the team started 67-49 to begin the season before crashing to a 12-34 record over the season’s final 46 games.

Amid a rash of injuries to a handful of starting pitchers, the team was forced to give starts to veteran journeymen Jake Arrieta and Vince Velasquez before missing the playoffs completely. The Padres vision of having a durable and dependable starting rotation capable of making a deep postseason run looked questionable at best.

Fast forward to the 2022 season, and the Padres were able to reap the rewards of going all in on a quality starting staff. After swinging trades for Mike Clevinger, Yu Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove between the 2020 trade deadline and the beginning of the 2021 calendar year, Padres general manager A.J. Preller once again looked to boost the rotation by signing Nick Martinez from Japan and trading for lefty Sean Manaea towards the end of spring training in 2022.

The Padres also promoted top prospect MacKenzie Gore into the starting rotation a little ways into the season before he was traded to the Nationals as part of the package for outfielder Juan Soto and first baseman Josh Bell.

For the most part, the Padres rotation positively regressed after a disastrous end to the 2021 season. As a group they were able to throw the 4th-most innings in baseball while putting up 13.7 fWAR, good for 5th in the National League behind the Phillies, Giants, Dodgers, and Mets. This was in major contrast to the 2021 team, who put up 10.1 fWAR and threw the second-fewest innings in the MLB.

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Let’s grade the Padres starting rotation, as well as take a look ahead to what the team’s options are for the starting staff in 2023:

Yu Darvish (16-8, 3.10 ERA, 4.2 fWAR)

Darvish struggled to find his footing with the Padres after he was shipped to San Diego during the 2020 offseason. He pitched to an ERA over four for the first time since 2018 and had a nagging hip injury that may have been a cause of his ineffectiveness.

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

In 2022, Darvish posted one of the best seasons of his career. He posted a number of career-bests since his 2013 season with the Rangers, and tied his career-best for wins in a season with 16. His 28 quality starts led the entire league, and his 194 2/3 innings were the most he’s thrown since the aforementioned 2013 season. By all accounts, his 2022 season was exactly what the Padres envisioned when they traded for him.

Though he is now 37, Darvish has shown to be dependable over the course of an entire year even after his 17th professional season. With his fixation on studying hitter tendencies and relying on a dizzying amount of breaking balls, Darvish has proved he can be effective even as his age continues to rise. He is under contract with the team for the 2023 season, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Darvish lead the Padres staff in innings and quality starts once again.

Grade: A+

Blake Snell (8-10, 3.38 ERA, 3.7 fWAR)

Snell arrived via trade just days after the team traded for Darvish after the 2020 season. Also similar to Darvish, Snell struggled to acquaint himself in 2021 as he pitched to career highs in walks and walks per nine innings as well as his lowest strikeout-to-walk ration since 2017. However the lefty showed flashes of his upside in his final few starts of 2021, pitching to a 1.72 ERA in August before an arm injury ended his season prematurely.

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Snell hit the Injured List before making a start in 2022, as he suffered a groin injury while warming up in the bullpen before his first start of the season. He returned in May and struggled, pitching to a 4.80 ERA in May and a 6.20 ERA in June before posting ERAs of 2.81, 2.81, and 2.06 in July, August, and September/October respectively.

Snell is still capable of becoming the perennial All-Star the Padres hoped for upon trading for him. He has one of the most tantalizing pitch mixes in the league and has shown flashes of being purely dominant. His main struggles have come in the form of injury and command, both of which hindered him in 2022 but not extensively.

Similar to Darvish, Snell is also under contract for the 2023 season. He figures to slot in behind Darvish once again next season, as the Padres hope for more stability and consistency.

Grade: B-

Joe Musgrove (10-7, 2.93 ERA, 3.5 fWAR)

Arguably the team’s best starter last year, Musgrove followed up his first campaign with his hometown team by making every one of his 30 starts and throwing a near identical amount of innings in 2021 (181 1/3) as he did in 2022 (181). He was fifth in the league in quality starts with 23, and posted an ERA under three for the first time in his career.

Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Though much of Musgrove’s success came in the first half of the season (8-0, 1.59 ERA in his first 12 starts), he rebounded after a rocky stretch to post similarly sterling numbers in September (1 ER allowed across 22 IP to end the regular season). He also showed flashes of brilliance in the postseason against the Mets and Dodgers (13 IP, 2 ER) but stumbled in Game 3 of the National League Championship Series against the Phillies (5 2/3 IP, 4 ER).

Musgrove signed a five-year, $100 million extension this summer to remain in San Diego through the 2027 season. He too will be in the center of the team’s rotation for 2023 as the right-handed pitcher looks to build on yet another breakout season.

Grade: A

Mike Clevinger (7-7, 4.33 ERA, 0.4 fWAR)

The Padres gave up a handful of talent when they acquired Clevinger at the 2020 trade deadline, in the first of A.J. Preller’s flurry of trades to bolster the starting rotation. After making four starts and helping the team earn its first playoff berth since 2006, Clevinger suffered what wound up being a torn UCL towards the end of the 2020 season. He started Game 1 of the National League Division Series against the Dodgers, but only lasted one inning before being removed due to injury and undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Mandatory Credit: Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

Clevinger recovered and made his first start in May after dealing with a number of injuries and a bout with COVID-19 through the 2022 season. Though he made 23 appearances (including 22 starts), Clevinger never seemed to regain the form he possessed in Cleveland and with the Padres in 2020. His velocity tended to lag behind the marks of previous years and his slider lacked its usual depth, but flashed its plus upside at times.

His lack of effectiveness was also exposed in the 2022 Postseason, where he made two starts against the Dodgers and Phillies and allowed eight earned runs over the course of 2 2/3 IP.

Clevinger is a free agent and it’s unknown whether the team will attempt to re-sign him after a rocky 2022 season.

The Padres may be better suited pursuing other options with more upside, as its unlikely Clevinger fully regains his elite status he had in years past. If he is brought back in 2023, it will likely be as a depth move.

Grade: F

Sean Manaea (8-9, 4.96 ERA, 1.1 fWAR)

Manaea was traded to the Padres from the Athletics prior to the 2022 season in exchange for two minor leaguers, and was seen as another way to add more depth to a seemingly already deep Padres pitching staff. His prior connection with Padres manager Bob Melvin in Oakland was arguably another positive as he entered his final season before free agency.

Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

His first start with the Padres was arguably his best as he threw seven hitless innings against the Diamondbacks in his first Padres start. While Manaea mostly pitched to his career averages in the first half of the season, he endured mounting struggles in the second half and was eventually jettisoned to the bullpen due to ineffectiveness. His 4.96 ERA in 2022 was the highest of his career by a significant margin.

Manaea’s lone appearance in the postseason was the fateful Game 5 of the NLCS in Philadelphia, where he surrendered five earned runsĀ in 1 1/3 IP. As previously mentioned, he is now a free agent and it’s unknown if the team will choose to bring him back for the 2023 season.

Similar to Clevinger, any deal with the Padres would likely be seen as a depth move more than anything else.

Grade: D-

Nick Martinez (4-4, 3.47 ERA, 0.5 fWAR)

After coming up and making his first MLB stint with the Rangers from 2014-2017, Martinez went to Japan and thrived in the NPB where he posted a 3.02 ERA across four seasons. The Padres evidently saw enough from him, and offered him a four year, $25.5 million contract where he entered spring training without a defined role.

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Martinez eventually made ten starts at the beginning of the 2022 seasoning was serviceable before being demoted to the bullpen due to an overcrowded rotation. Once there, Martinez thrived and operated as arguably the Padres most versatile pitcher. He became the first pitcher in MLB history to make ten starts, record four holds, and eight saves in the same season. He served a crucial role as the team’s closer during Josh Hader’s initial struggles after the team acquired him at the trade deadline.

Martinez has a player option for the 2023 season, with a $1.5 million buyout clause. If he opts in to his contract for 2023, he’ll earn $6.5 million.

The expectation is that Martinez will opt out of his current contract and test the free agent market, though the Padres would be wise to explore bringing him back into the fold for next season as either a back end starter or versatile reliever.

Grade: A+

MacKenzie Gore (4-4, 4.50 ERA, 0.5 WAR)

Gore has been one of the most enigmatic cases of any professional player in recent memory. After being drafted third overall in the 2017 MLB Draft, he quickly shot up prospect boards and cemented himself as the organization’s top pitching prospect.

Mandatory Credit: Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

Then, after missing out on a 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic and struggling mightily in 2021, Gore came into this season with a handful of question marks surrounding his ability to contribute to the major league team. He made his highly anticipated MLB debut in May and was fantastic through his first nine starts. He was then traded as part of the team’s package sent to the Washington Nationals in exchange for Soto and Bell. He has yet to make a start for the Nationals after suffering elbow inflammation just prior to being traded.

Gore has the potential to turn into one of the better pitchers in the league, and he’s been afforded the opportunity to work through his struggles with a rebuilding Nationals team. He’ll likely become a mainstay in Washington’s rotation for the next five years, though his brief time with the Padres in 2022 showed his potential.

Grade: B

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