With the postseason well underway and the Padres season more than a week in the rearview mirror, the offseason is in full swing in San Diego. Sure, we have plenty to watch in what has already been an exciting postseason, but the time has come to start looking back on what was in the 2017 season and what to expect in 2018.
In order to get a more holistic view of the Padres in 2017, and more importantly, the team outlook for 2018, we here at East Village Times will be bringing back a series we ran the last offseason called PNOs. In this series of articles, we will be covering the positives and negatives of each player on the 40-man roster, as well as taking a look at each player’s outlook for 2018 and beyond.
Now that we have had a week to digest what happened in 2017, let’s get started with a player who actually never put on a Padres uniform in 2017. That player is left-hander Matt Strahm, who was acquired by the Padres as part of a July trade with the Kansas City Royals in which the Padres traded right-handers Brandon Maurer and Trevor Cahill, and left-hander Ryan Buchter, to the Royals. The Padres also received left-hander Travis Wood and second baseman Esteury Ruiz in that deal, two guys who will be included in this series at a later date.
Before we get into the positives and negatives of Strahm, and his outlook for 2018, let’s go over a little history with regard to Strahm. Drafted in the 21st round of the 2012 MLB Draft, Matt Strahm had an interesting rise through the Royals’ farm system. After a rough start to his professional career in the Rookie League in 2012, Strahm underwent Tommy John surgery in early 2013, which caused him to miss the entirety of the 2013 season and most of the 2014 season.
Following a brief 19-inning stint at the end of 2014 with the Royals Rookie League affiliate, Strahm put himself on the map with a strong showing in 2015. Throwing a combined 94 innings split between Low-A and High-A, Strahm dazzled with a combined ERA below 3.00 and a strikeout rate of at least 30 percent in both stops. Strahm started the 2016 season in Double-A and threw 102 and a third innings there before earning a late-season promotion to the big leagues. In 22 big league innings, Strahm struck out 30 batters while walking 11, giving up just three earned in the process.
Going into the 2017 season, Strahm was supposed to be competing for a spot in the rotation. However, with several key offseason additions to the Royals’ rotation, Strahm was moved to the bullpen, where he started the year at Triple-A before making his way back to the big leagues after just five Triple-A innings. Strahm was less than stellar in his 34 and two-thirds innings following that promotion and prior to a knee injury that ended his season prematurely. Going into 2018, Strahm has a lot to prove, but he should get every chance to do so with a good chance to crack the Padres’ opening day rotation.
Considering all that Strahm has been through, he is still just 25 years old and will be 26 by Opening Day of next season. For a pitcher who has been through so many injuries and a bit of a rollercoaster of switching between starting and relieving, his youth should serve him well going forward. On a team like the Padres, who clearly aren’t going to be that competitive in 2018, Strahm has a great shot of making an impact with a big margin for error. Strahm is going to be given every chance to start in 2018, so he would have to really struggle to lose that opportunity completely. If he is healthy, which is a big if given his history, he should be in the mix on Opening Day in 2018.
As cliche as it may be, left-handed pitchers have an advantage in major league baseball. Not only are they rarer than the right-handed variety, but they also benefit from deception that most right-handers just don’t benefit from. Given that most batters are used to facing right-handers a majority of the time, left-handers come at them at a different angle. Sure, there’s always going to be the right-handed hitters that just mash left-handers, but it’s still a benefit to be a southpaw in the major leagues. On top of that, Strahm also adds further deception to his motion, as he hides the ball until the last possible second.
As seen in the video above, Strahm has a solid throwing motion that does a great job of hiding the ball from the batter for as long as possible. This deception has certainly benefited Strahm in a bullpen role and should also benefit him in the rotation if he ends up starting in 2018.
Despite his struggles in 2017, at the end of the day Strahm has some prospect pedigree. Prior to the start of the 2017 season, Eric Longenhagen, the lead prospect analyst of Fangraphs, ranked Strahm inside his top-100 at number 72. Not only did Longenhagen give Strahm plus current grades on both his fastball and curveball, but he also had a 70 future grade on Strahm’s curveball. With two plus pitches, and one being a potential double plus pitch in the future, Strahm has all the tools he needs to be a successful big league pitcher. With solid command of a potential plus-plus curveball, on top of a fastball that can run into the mid-to-upper 90s, Strahm has a good two-pitch mix to get him started. There are still questions about his changeup as a viable third pitch, as well as his overall command, but he already has a head start over plenty of other young pitchers.
If there is one thing that is obvious about Matt Strahm, it is his injury history. With a Tommy John surgery in his past, as well as a knee surgery that he is still trying to recover from, Strahm has had his share of injury problems in his professional career. People like to say that the biggest predictor of future injury is previous injury, which puts a bit of a red flag on Strahm. Despite this concern, Tommy John surgery is no longer the death knell for a career that it once was. At the same time, a second elbow injury could mean the end of Strahm’s career. There’s really no point in speculating about a potential future injury, but the concern with Strahm is definitely real. On top of all that, Strahm has yet to throw over 130 innings in a single season, which makes durability another concern going forward. Given those limitations, I would be surprised if the Padres push Strahm too hard in 2018.
No Third Pitch
I have already talked at length about Strahm’s pitching repertoire, however, there is a limitation in that repertoire: Strahm has yet to throw a viable third pitch. There is at least some hope that Strahm’s changeup can be an average big league pitch, but to this point, it hasn’t really been that usable in game situations. During his brief time in the big leagues in 2017, Strahm threw 67 percent fastballs, 16 percent sliders, eight percent curveballs, and nine percent changeups. While his fastball graded out at above average, and his curveball also showed strongly in certain instances, Strahm struggled to maintain both his slider and changeup as viable third pitches. Padres’ pitching coach Darren Balsley has worked his magic before, and the Padres are hoping he can do the same with Strahm.
While his lack of an above average third pitch is a cause for concern, the bigger issue with Strahm is his consistent struggles with his pitch command and overall control. Not only does Strahm struggle with hitting spots, but he also shows bouts of wildness. After sporting a 12.5 percent walk rate in his first taste of big league action in 2016, Strahm increased his walk rate by almost two more percentage points to 14.3 percent. A reliever can probably get away with some bouts of wildness, but a starter definitely wouldn’t have the same luxury.
Going into 2018, it’s hard to really put a finger on the kind of season Strahm could have. It’s clear he will get a pretty big opportunity to start in the big leagues, but there remains a possibility he could end up back in the minors to work on starting, or back in the bullpen, at least in the short-term. If Strahm can work with Balsley and concentrate on his command issues and find a more consistent third pitch, he could have a very successful year as a starter for the Friars in 2018. However, all that will depend on his health and how he comes back from his most recent injury. No matter what happens this offseason, Strahm should be in the mix for significant big league innings in 2018, and perhaps even beyond. Worst case scenario, Strahm could be another elite-level bullpen piece the Padres could build around long-term, or trade for more future assets. Only time will tell on that end.