Spring training has officially come to a close. Opening night is now only four days away. Most of the San Diego Padres roster seems to be relatively set, but there are still a few important questions left to be answered. One of those being the final two rotation spots.
With Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner, and James Shields locked in at the top of the rotation, the Padres still have two spots up for grabs, with Colin Rea, Drew Pomeranz, Brandon Morrow, and Robbie Erlin left to compete for those spots. At this point, it seems that Colin Rea has all but guaranteed himself one of the two spots with his strong performance this spring, giving up 14 earned runs in 22 plus innings of work.
If that prediction is true, that leaves Pomeranz, Erlin, and Morrow for the final spot. Given his strong performance last season before his injury, Morrow would appear to have the inside track to that rotation spot. However, it remains unclear whether he will be completely ready to go on Opening Day, so he may be out of the running. That leaves Pomeranz and Erlin. Given Pomeranz’s struggles this spring, and his strength as a left-handed reliever, the most likely option seems to be giving the final rotation spot to Erlin, at least until Brandon Morrow is 100% ready.
So far Erlin has been a bright spot for the Padres this spring, giving up only 3 earned runs in his 12 innings of work. By comparison, Pomeranz has had his struggles, giving up 13 runs in his 14 innings of work. Based on recent history, it seems that Pomeranz just operates better in a relief role, and that seems like the likely landing spot for him this season. Especially given the strong impression left by Erlin during spring training.
Despite his strong performance this spring, Erlin has yet to prove himself as a consistent starter at the big league level. Below are his numbers so far at the major league level over parts of the last three seasons.
In 133 total innings over those three seasons, Erlin has struggled to maintain any sort of consistency, accumulating an ERA of 4.60 in the process. Erlin is perhaps best known for his low strikeout and walkout rates, his pitching to weak contact, and his resemblance to Mark Buehrle as a pitcher. Erlin isn’t ever going to overpower hitters, but he can finesse his way through a lineup with his control and ingenuity.
However, there are some positive signs when you look at his defense independent pitching statistics. One example of this is Erlin’s career FIP, which sits almost a whole run below his career ERA. This demonstrates at least some positive in Erlin’s ability on the mound. Despite consistently running poor ERAs, Erlin has been able to maintain above average, or at least average, FIPs. This may also be due to him being able to run low BABIPs, perhaps due to a lower fly ball rate and a higher ground ball rate than the average over the course of his career.
Despite there being some discrepancies in his big league numbers, making it hard to project him as being anything above an average starter, Erlin did have some more promising numbers during his time in the minors. His minor league numbers are listed below.
There’s obviously a lot of information here, but the most important thing to look at is the high strikeout rates and ERAs he maintained in the lower levels. Clearly this is due to the competition he faced, but there is at least something there with those numbers. However, most alarming of all were Erlin’s Triple-A numbers from last year, in which he finished with an ERA over 5.00 in just over 100 innings pitched. For a pitcher of his age, that kind of performance at the Triple-A level is not inspiring, even given the offensive heavy nature of the league.
At the end of the day, the Padres know exactly what kind of pitcher Robbie Erlin is. He is never going to overpower hitters or induce much weak contact, but he does excel at controlling the strike zone and managing the game. For a fifth starter, that’s not a bad thing to have. However, if Brandon Morrow is healthy, he is clearly the better option long-term. With that being said, in the short-term, Erlin is more than capable to be a decent fifth option in the Padres rotation.