Pitching depth will make or break title hopes for Padres

Feb 24, 2023; Peoria, Arizona, USA; San Diego Padres pitcher Nick Martinez (21) throws against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning at Peoria Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports

In most sports, defense wins championships. It’s not hard to argue that in baseball, it is pitching that wins titles. The Padres seem top-heavy on the pitching staff. Do they have enough depth?

Plain and simple, the Padres have the best lineup in the National League, perhaps in all of baseball (the Houston Astros would like a word). As long as the lineup is fairly healthy, they should not have a hard time consistently scoring runs, with the inevitable off night here and there.

Having Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, and eventually Fernando Tatis Jr. in the lineup will give any opposing pitching staff indigestion.

What the Padres’ World Series title hopes lean on is the depth of their own pitching staff. We all saw last year how keeping their starting rotation healthy (with thanks to a six-man rotation) was a crucial element to their late-season success.

Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove each logged 30 starts, which is usually the benchmark for a starter having a full, healthy season. Three other starting pitchers logged at least 22 starts in Sean Manaea( 28), Blake Snell (24), and Mike Clevinger (22).

Two of those pitchers in the latter group are now gone. Will their replacements be as sturdy?

Certainly, having depth is more than just having a bunch of random guys logging a high number of innings. The Padres ranked fourth in MLB last season in starter innings. However, they ranked 13th in starter ERA. It was weighed down by the struggles of Manaea (4.96 ERA) and Clevinger (4.33 ERA). Not only do you need a group of starters staying healthy all season, but you also need them to be, well, good pitchers.

Yes, the Padres boast an enviable top three in Darvish, Snell, and Musgrove. The Mets might have a better top duo in Max Scherzer and Justin Verlander. Even the Yankees, with Gerrit Cole, Carlos Rodon, and Nestor Cortes, are a strong contender.

The trick is having enough depth to weather the many storms that come with a 162-game marathon of a regular season. The real question is, are Nick Martinez, Seth Lugo, and Michael Wacha ready to be counted on every fifth or sixth day on a team with championship hopes?

Plus, as Bob Melvin points out frequently, it will take more than those guys to get the job done. It’s not a 26-man effort. It’s a 40-man effort and then some.

Are the Padres too top-heavy in the starting rotation? Obviously, injuries are part of the game. Sometimes, there’s just nothing you can do. But the championship-caliber teams seem to always have depth to answer for adversity throughout the season.

Padres Blake Snell
Credit: AP Photo

That means guys like Nabil Crismatt, Jay Groome, Brent Honeywell Jr., and even an aging Cole Hamels or a fading Julio Teheran could and probably will be counted on to make starts throughout the season.

Last season, 12 different Padres starting a game on the mound. During their disastrous collapse in 2021, 15 different pitchers made a start for San Diego. Depth is critical.

The difference between the epic collapse in 2021 and last year’s steady group was the pitching depth that pulled the Padres through to a long postseason run.

Let’s look at the 2022 World Series champion Astros. They had five different starters make at least 25 starts. They experienced incredible luck with health among their starters, which is undoubtedly part of the equation. Even they had to have eight different hurlers make a start.

It’s impossible to predict good health, even with Musgrove and Darvish proving to be durable. Both of them reached the 30-start plateau each of the last two years. Even if they both do what they have done recently, is that enough? Probably not. Blake Snell needs to be the Blake Snell of the post-All-Star break, not before. Will Martinez, Lugo, and Wacha offset or be upgrades over losing Manaea, Clevinger, and MacKenzie Gore?

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Martinez and Lugo have made a grand total of 17 starts between the two over the last three seasons. There is no guarantee that either experiment as a starter full-time will work. Lugo was a pure reliever each of the last two seasons. Martinez was a jack-of-all-trades for San Diego last year.

Wacha experienced success in Boston last year but was that a one-off or a dramatic turnaround from his previous sharp decline?

A midseason trade is not of the question, either. In fact, if things go awry, it might be imperative.

The bullpen seems better equipped. Josh Hader is a bona fide all-world-level closer. Robert Suarez looks to be blossoming into one himself, with his fastball that is in the 94th percentile and baffling changeup. Luis Garcia, Tim Hill, Crismatt, and Steven Wilson have all gotten big outs in the past. Drew Pomeranz is on the mend. Jose Castillo is still a weapon when healthy.

The true question will be, can the Padres navigate a 162-game season with the inevitable attrition? They have already experienced some health issues, with Musgrove’s broken toe and Adrian Morejon‘s concerning arm injury, which is pending a critical MRI. If they can, a daunting postseason field likely awaits. They will probably have to go through the Dodgers again. The Braves, Cardinals, and Mets all think they have a chance as well. If the Padres can successfully weather those storms, they likely will have a team like the Astros, Blue Jays, or Yankees waiting for them in the World Series.

The Padres will live or die by their pitching depth, not their vaunted lineup.

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