When the San Diego Padres traded for Kevin Brown before the 1998 season, the players knew the organization was shooting for the moon. It’s too late to add a savior at this point in the Padres 2021 season, but there just might be a Sterling Hitchcock who can help carry the team to the promised land.
In reality, there are few, if any, Kevin Browns left in baseball.
A workhorse, he pitched 257 innings with an 18-7 record and 2.38 ERA, including three shutouts in seven complete games for an ERA+164. General manager Kevin Towers orchestrated the trade and predicted that Brown could go head-to-head with the likes of the Houston Astros’ Randy Johnson in the National League Division Series opener. Brown did just that, winning Game 1 2-1. Alas, the following year, Brown ended up with the Los Angeles Dodgers, signing a seven-year $105 million contract, thus becoming the first $100-million-player in MLB history.
Brown’s very presence overshadowed the performance of Hitchcock, who reached career heights in the playoffs. This year the Padres desperately need one or more of the big three (Joe Musgrove or Yu Darvish or Blake Snell) to meet that challenge. A.J. Preller, promoted to president of baseball operations before the season began, acquired all three before this much anticipated season.
In his first year in San Diego in 1997, Hitchcock had a 10-11 record and .5.20 ERA. The following year he improved to 9-7, 3.93 ERA. But, in the postseason, Hitchcock caught fire in the National League Division Series against the Houston Astros, going 1-0 with a 1.50 ERA. He got even hotter in the National League Championship, winning two games with a minuscule 0.9 ERA, and earning the Most Valuable Player award for the series. Overall, in the playoffs, he allowed three runs in 22 innings, struck out 32, and put up a 1.23 ERA.
In 1998, the Padres won 98 games. The closest the team has gotten to that milestone was a 90-win season in 2010. Sitting at 68 wins as of August 26, the chances of the Padres repeating that feat would require the most miraculous comeback in the history of the game. But they obviously still have a chance to regain their mojo and reclaim a wild card spot.
Preller obviously put too much faith in Ryan Weathers at the trade deadline, faith hardly justified by one full season in Single-A. Unfortunately, the results of hurrying Weathers without the usual stops on the way have been predictable. Through May 8, Weathers had a 1.31 ERA, but the 21-year-old now sports a 5.27 ERA. Worse, his confidence has probably sunk to new lows.
Preller traded relief pitcher Michell Miliano and outfielder Jack Suwinski for Adam Frazier at the trade deadline instead of acquiring a starting pitcher or two. With the roster already littered with second baseman, the move made little sense position-wise. However, Frazier did come with a slash line of .327/392/.453 and 132 wRC+. As of August 24, he’s batted .233/.274/.278 in 97 plate appearances in San Diego. But the bottom line: Frazier can’t pitch.
After Monday’s game, Dodger pitchers had logged 62 quality starts, the Padres just 33 quality starts. And the farm system can’t come to the rescue either as the pitcher ranks have been reduced by trades. However, there is still time for the big three to reclaim past glory, to summon their inner Sterling Hitchcock.
Musgrove pitched the first no-hitter in Padres’ history early in the season, a definite high point of the season. He has been the steadiest of the big three, eating 139.1 innings and compiling an ERA of 3.04, the lowest in his career.
The American League Cy Young winner in 2018, Snell pitched 180.2 innings that year, with a 21-5 record 1.89 ERA, ERA+ 217. Snell’s ERA of 4.58 is the highest in his career, his ERA+ the lowest at 83.
Last year with the Chicago Cubs, Darvish had a .727 winning percentage and ERA+ of 219. In San Diego, the winning percentage has dropped to .500, ERA+ to 102. At least his return will take pressure off the bullpen, which has started six games in the last 13. The Padres can only hope the rest has rejuvenated Darvish. The opening day pitcher Darvish has started 23 games, won 15 and lost eight. However, in June, his ERA ballooned to 5.29.
The Padre’s traditional answer to disappointment has been to fire the hitting coach, but this year the pitching coach, Larry Rothschild, walked the plank right before the Dodgers headed south. Firing the pitching coach in late August in the middle of a pennant race is certainly a dubious strategy, but now the pressure will now be on former bullpen coach Ben Fritz. Unfortunately, firing Rothschild won’t heal arms or backs or hips or psyches.
However, as deflating and exhausting as Wednesday’s 16-inning marathon must be for the players, the Padres did not roll over and play dead. Going against the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler and his 2.11 ERA, Snell stepped up, lasting 7.2 innings and throwing 122 pitches. He gave up just three hits, and one earned run. The Dodgers went just five for 45 with runners in scoring position.
For the most part, though, the team that swept the Dodgers early in the season is MIA and needs to improve in all facets of the game except relief pitching to have a chance at a Wild Card berth. If the big three of Musgrove, Darvish, and Snell can perform as expected, the team has a fighting chance.