At the end of the 2022 season, the San Diego Padres will have decisions to make regarding their pitching staff. While they have currently assembled one of the most formidable starting rotations in the majors, a handful of that same talent will be eligible for free agency after this season, as well as next.
Joe Musgrove, Sean Manaea, Mike Clevinger, and Nick Martinez (who has a player option after each of the next three seasons) could all be eligible for free agency after the 2022 season, with Blake Snell and Yu Darvish under team control through 2023. Rookie MacKenzie Gore is the only starter in the current rotation who is under team control after 2023.
Throughout the season, there have been reports of the Padres working on extension talks with the aforementioned Musgrove, a San Diego native having a breakout season. As such, Musgrove figures likely to command a nine-figure contract, which is much more than what the Padres reported to have offered earlier this season (according to The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal).
Though the Padres haven’t shied away from doling out big contracts in the past (Eric Hosmer, Manny Machado, Fernando Tatis Jr.), their aggressiveness to build a perennial contender has currently saddled them with a bloated payroll that is approaching the luxury tax figure, a number that the team seems determined to stay below to reset their tax threshold.
Therefore, it looks as though the Padres will have a decision to make this offseason. As it stands, the team already has a hefty $147 million tied up in contracts for next season (according to Spotrac). While Jurickson Profar, Martinez, and Robert Suarez can each opt-out of their current contracts after this season and save the team an additional $20 million, the Padres will still be carrying a loaded payroll into next season. Additionally, Profar and Martinez have quietly become two of the more reliable performers on a team desperately searching for more consistency. As such, the likelihood of re-signing both Manaea and Musgrove remains low, barring an unforeseen pivot in spending habits from team ownership.
As mentioned previously, Musgrove is likely to command a nine-figure deal after early returns this season (8-2, 2.09 ERA, 2.7 bWAR) have shown signs of a Cy Young candidate. Musgrove was also named to his first All-Star team this season, which figures to be another bargaining chip in extension negotiations.
Manaea, while less effective so far in 2022 (4-4, 4.09 ERA, 0.3 bWAR), has proved to be one of the most consistent starters in baseball since his debut in 2016. Since the start of last season, Manaea is 18th in the league in games started (48), and 21st in innings pitched (274). Since being traded to San Diego before the start of the 2022 season, he has provided both to a Padres pitching staff looking for stability and consistency after a 2021 collapse that saw the team hand starts to Vince Velasquez and Jake Arrieta.
Manaea will also command a lucrative free-agent contract, albeit likely not as much as Musgrove. His lower dollar figure may be more attractive to a team looking to limit their spending and search for value wherever it may be available.
However, Manaea’s durability and effectiveness as a left-handed starter will have many teams eager to spend. Manaea’s agent, Scott Boras, is notoriously known for reaping as much value as possible in a player’s free agency discussions. It is also unknown whether the relationship between Boras and the Padres has soured after the team’s public yet consistently fruitless attempts to trade first baseman Eric Hosmer, another Boras client.
Both starters have remained durable throughout their careers, though both are also approaching an age range where velocity tends to drop and stuff begins to diminish (Musgrove is 29, Manaea is 30). Additionally, both have thrown a taxing amount of innings throughout their careers (Musgrove has thrown 777 career innings, Manaea 821).
Musgrove also uses a style of pitching that has a tendency to cause arm and, specifically, elbow problems. From 2018 to 2021, Musgrove consistently increased the usage of his most effective pitch, the slider, until leveling off this season. Still, a 27.4% usage of his slider ranks in the top 20 in the league. While he has clearly had success throwing the pitch as his primary offering, it raises potential injury questions as Musgrove’s age continues to advance.
Manaea, on the other hand, is a polar opposite case. Among qualifying pitchers, he leads the league in the percentage of fastballs thrown at a staggeringly high 61.9%. In fact, Manaea has only thrown a breaking pitch 14% of the time this season, relying more heavily on a changeup used as his primary off-speed pitch.
The value of re-signing at least one free agent starter this offseason should be looked at as a priority for the Padres. With a farm system that remains thinner than in years past, the likelihood of trading for a frontline starter in the offseason is seemingly low. Though Padres GM and President of Baseball Operations A.J. Preller has been known to surprise in years past, it’s likely that any prospects being shipped out in the coming months will be used to acquire a bat that can supplement a dreadful Padres offense which ranks 28th in the league in slugging percentage.
Both Joe Musgrove and Sean Manaea come with risk, as does signing any free agent starting pitcher to a long-term deal. The likelihood of either pitcher continuing to pitch effectively for the next five to seven years is low, according to league trends. While Musgrove and the Padres still remain optimistic about an extension, the team should also consider a reunion with Manaea at season’s end.
Regardless of which direction the team chooses to go, it’s becoming increasingly important that at least one (and maybe even two) of San Diego’s pending free agent starting pitchers remain with the team to provide stability to a rotation that could soon be lacking veteran experience.