It’s time for the Padres to be able to rely on their starting rotation for success.
For the better part of two years, the Padres have been extremely cautious, at times too cautious, with their starting pitchers. With the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, the excuse prevailed that pitchers had too little time to ramp up before the season started in late July. Ex-manager Jayce Tingler wanted to protect his starting pitchers from overworking too quickly after an awkward, stop-and-go start to the season.
Then in 2021, the built-in pretext was that since 2020 was a shortened season, the pitchers were not conditioned to pitch a full 162-game slate. This led to bullpen game after bullpen game for the Padres, resulting in 15 different pitchers getting a start on the mound over the course of the 2021 campaign. For reference, the World Series participants in the Braves and Astros had 11 and nine, respectively. The Padres dealt with injuries like few other clubs but also seemed to coddle their starters more than most teams. Either way, it didn’t seem to help; the pitchers got hurt anyway.
Now, even with yet another abnormal offseason with the lockout, the Padres need to shed the excuses and give way for the starting rotation to carry the team. The Friars are down their superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. for at least the first few months of the season, tempering expectations for their offensive production. Plus, the Padres have one of the worst outfields by the projections around the league. FanGraphs’ ZiPS tool projects the Padres’ left field spot to be dead last in production in the league while right field ranks 27th.
The starting rotation, on the other hand, projects to be the ninth-best group in baseball. Of course, Padres fans have cruelly learned that on paper doesn’t always mean on-field success. However, San Diego needs to take off the kid gloves, loosen the leash, take off the bridle, and let this starting rotation play to its potential. At times last year, Tingler seemed to have too quick of a hook. In the end, it led to the bullpen becoming overworked and breaking down late in the year. They went from the top-ranked bullpen in the league in the first half, while also leading the league in innings pitched by a bullpen, plummeting to 25th after the All-Star break.
Given the names in the rotation, the Padres should be able to rely on their arms for success, at least until the cavalry arrives mid-season in the form of Tatis. Blake Snell looked like he had returned to his 2018 Cy Young form late in the season, with a 1.83 ERA in his final eight starts. Yu Darvish was an All-Star last season, but broke down later in the year with a nagging hip. He insists that it is now 100 percent.
Joe Musgrove was perhaps the biggest, most pleasant surprise of the 2021 Padres. In a year where he threw the franchise’s first ever no-hitter, he backed it up with the best ERA and ERA+ on the team among starters.
People are also quick to forget how good Mike Clevinger was before needing Tommy John surgery and missing the entire 2021 season. Between 2017 and 2020, Clevinger was 10th in all of baseball in ERA among starters and ninth in ERA+. He should be back and better than ever after he gets a full spring workload in, which may bleed into the regular season a bit.
That’s about as solid a top four in a rotation as there is in baseball, again, on paper.
The fight for the fifth spot could be exciting, with former top prospect MacKenzie Gore basically Spring Training MVP to this point in Peoria after two outings. Add in Japan Pacific League import Nick Martinez as well as the young-and-hungry Chris Paddack and Ryan Weathers, the Padres have no shortage of options to open a game on the mound.
It’s time to take off the training wheels and let these stallions run- no more bullpen days and no more quick hooks after three innings. Manager Bob Melvin seems like the perfect manager to navigate this delicate situation between keeping guys healthy and riding your starters as long as possible.
The lineup has some holes south of Manny Machado, Jake Cronenworth, Trent Grisham, and Luke Voit. The bullpen lacks some clear roles, including closer. One unit that has very little in the number of question marks is the starting rotation. Most of these players are proven veterans. It’s time to let them carry this team and lead the way to a run at October.