The 2019 MLB playoffs prove once again that the San Diego Padres will need an improved pitching staff to go deep into the playoffs.
It should come as no surprise that the teams with the top seven of 10 pitching staffs in ERA, OPS, and BAA made it to the playoffs this year. From the beginning, the old adage that good pitching beats good hitting has proven to be true in the postseason as well.
Of the three teams left standing, the Washington Nationals and Houston Astros have leaned on their starters, a combination of aces in the true sense of the word. Thanks to the rainout, Zack Greinke will be pitching on regular rest. Greinke definitely helped get the Astros to the playoffs with his 18-5 record and sub-.300 ERA in 208.2 innings. But in 9.2 innings in the postseason, his ERA has inexplicably ballooned to 8.38 and WHIP to 1.34.
Waiting in the wings, however, the Astros have Justin Verlander (3.12 ERA, 1.21 WHIP in 17.1 innings) and Gerrit Cole (0.40 ERA, 0.79 WHIP in 22.2 innings). The last-minute acquisition of Verlander in 2017 helped put the Astros over the top that year.
In January 2018, Houston traded starting pitcher Joe Musgrove, outfielder Jason Martin, third baseman Colin Moran, reliever Michael Feliz to the Pittsburgh Pirates for Cole, who rewarded them with a 20-5 record, 2.50 ERA, 0.89 WHIP in 212.1 innings in the regular season. So far, his 97-MPH fastball and 85 MPH knuckle curve have earned him a 0.40 ERA and 0.79 WHIP in the playoffs. Ironically, Cole was drafted by the Yankees but instead chose to go to college.
The Washington Nationals have co-aces in San Diego State University’s Stephen Strasburg (1.64 ERA, 1.04 WHIP in 22 innings) and Max Scherzer (1.80 ERA, 0.85 WHIP in 20 innings) as well as Anibal Sanchez (0.71 ERA, 0.63 WHIP). Patrick Corbin won 14 games in the regular season but has given up 11 hits and 12 runs in 13.1 innings so far. In game one, Sanchez held the St. Louis Cardinals hitless until the 27th batter. In the second game, it took the Cards 20 at-bats to get a hit against Scherzer.
The Yankees won 103 games in the regular season, just four fewer than the Astros. Led by Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres, the Yankees can mash with the best of them. New York easily swept the Minnesota Twins, the team with the highest ERA (7.56) in the regular season. The Twins went quietly, losing by scores of 5-1, 8-2, and 10-4.
However, New York can’t boast a stable of true horses. Masahiro Tanaka has been their most successful starter so far. He dominated the Astros in a 7-0 victory in the first game of the ALCS and has an ERA of 0.82 and a WHIP of 0.55 in 11 innings in two games for the Yankees in the postseason. But James Paxton and Luis Severino have disappointed so far, the latter throwing 36 pitches in the first inning of a 1-4 loss to the Astros in Game 3.
Cardinals manager Mike Shildt among others, has observed that balls are traveling 4.5 fewer feet in the playoffs than in the regular season, leading many to wonder if Major League Baseball switched from the much-maligned balls used in the regular season. However, that phenomenon can also be credited to the dominance of old fashioned aces, horses a team can ride into the later innings.
But even certified aces have limits. In game three of the ALDS, the Astros started Verlander on three days rest, hoping to sweep the Tampa Bay Rays, but the move backfired. Los Angeles Dodgers’ manager Dave Roberts, despite past history, pitched Clayton Kershaw out of the bullpen, which has never been a comfort zone for one of the best in the game. Kershaw gave up back to back home runs to the Nationals and sent them on their way while the Dodgers went home.
To play with the big boys, the San Diego Padres obviously need to add a veteran ace, and the hunt will start at the end of the World Series. A top-rated farm system and costly additions like Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, and Wil Myers have not gotten the Padres even to a break-even record. At this point, the Padres have exactly one starting pitcher, Chris Paddack, who could conceivably attain ace status. In minor league pitcher MacKenzie Gore the Padres have a guy more likely to make that leap, but a rookie cannot lead the team to the promised land.
Last year the Padres failed to land a veteran pitcher. Even an innings-eater rather than an ace would have helped, especially since Paddack, among others, had innings limits. Instead, San Diego tried strategies such as bullpen days, which most definitely did not work. The Padres lost all four, allowed a total of 26 runs, and overworked the pen.
This year, general manager A.J. Preller will be searching for an ace, and Gerrit Cole would be a perfect fit. After all, he’s a West Coast guy and would probably prefer to pitch for a California team. The front runner in the American League Cy Young sweepstakes, the 28-year-old Cole, will be pursued by multiple teams.
One of the most intriguing issues in the offseason search for an ace will be the Padres’ ability or even willingness to pay top dollar. Will the paychecks for Myers, Hosmer, and Machado limit the team’s ability to go after a front line starter?
Further complicating the picture, Preller has been reluctant to give up any of his top prospects. In 2018, the Yankees wanted to acquire Cole from the Pittsburgh Pirates but didn’t want to pay the asking price in players like Miguel Andujar and Gleyber Torres. Would Preller be willing to give up prospects if the right arm became available in the offseason?
Of course, Preller has to choose a new manager, too, and the search continues. Paying the price (in dollars and/or prospects) for a true ace, one in his prime, not a broken-down relic from better days, would be a first for the Padres.