Who will be the Padres’ Opening Day starter?

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Padres Blake Snell
Credit: USA Today Sports

When the San Diego Padres start their season on April 1, who will be the starting pitcher?

With just under a week remaining until opening day, San Diego Padres manager Jayce Tingler finds himself in a familiar spot that Padres managers found themselves in for much of the past decade. Once again, the Padres do not have a clear-cut “ace,” so the manager needs to decide on the opening day starter.

Now, the decision in the past typically involved starters who weren’t true “aces,” so the 2021 Opening Day starter conversation is much different than before. Even Chris Paddack vs. Dinelson Lamet before the 2020 season felt cheap because Chris Paddack only pitched 140 innings in his young career before the season. Lamet struggled at times in 2019 after recovering from Tommy John surgery.

Entering the offseason, questions surrounded the starting rotation after Lamet and Mike Clevinger’s seasons were cut short due to injuries. Paddack faltered in the second half of the short season, and Zach Davies got roughed up in both of his postseason starts.

Padres general manager AJ Preller answered some of those questions by trading for 2018 American League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell, 2020 National League Cy Young Award runner-up Yu Darvish, and talented starter Joe Musgrove.

The rotation of Snell-Darvish-Lamet-Paddack-Lamet-Musgrove certainly provides many good options, so let’s look at them now that spring training is almost over.

Will not be the Padres opening day starter

Chris Paddack

Paddack earned this role in 2020, coming off his stellar rookie campaign in 2019. Through four starts in 2020, Paddack held a 3.18 ERA. Things quickly turned bad for Paddack, as he allowed four runs or more in four of his last eight starts. Paddack got the nod to start the Padres’ first playoff game in 14 years and proceeded to allow six runs and get pulled in the third inning.

Expectations are that Paddack will remain in the rotation for the entire 2021 season, but he needs to be more of the 2019 Paddack, or else he might be pushed out.

Joe Musgrove

After appearing in the 2017 World Series for the Houston Astros, Houston shipped Musgrove to the Pittsburgh Pirates, where Musgrove could become a full-time starting pitcher. Musgrove always possessed the stuff to become a great pitcher, but he never figured it out. In 2020, Musgrove turned a corner, especially in September.

In nine 2021 spring training innings, Musgrove impressed by only allowing two earned runs. However, Musgrove is not quite at the level of the other pitchers acquired this offseason.

Not ready on opening day

Dinelson Lamet

Lamet would absolutely be in this conversation, but Lamet is yet to appear in a spring training game in 2021. After leaving his tune-up start for the postseason in the final series of the regular season with an injury, Lamet is still working his way back.

He soared in 2020, finishing in fourth place for the NL Cy Young Award. In 12 ⅔ innings against the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lamet dominated with a 1.42 ERA and .711 WHIP. Unfortunately, he is not in the opening day conversation but can be in the “ace” conversation when he returns.

The true opening day contenders for the Padres

Blake Snell

The Padres gave up a haul for Snell, and he’s looking worth it so far in Spring Training. In 9 ⅓ innings, Snell is yet to allow an earned run.

The 2018 AL Cy Young Award winner never worked deep into games, largely due to the Tampa Bay Rays’ philosophy about starters. Now, he’ll have the chance to reach his full potential as a starter when he is able to work into the seventh inning and beyond. At times, Snell can be an inefficient pitcher, so it is not all on the Rays.

Yu Darvish

The day after the Padres traded for Snell, Preller acquired Yu Darvish from the Chicago Cubs.

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After Darvish struggled in the 2017 World Series for the Dodgers, he signed with Chicago in free agency. Darvish struggled and got hurt in 2018 and then struggled again in the first half of 2019. After the 2019 all-star break, Darvish re-established himself as an elite pitcher and now finds himself in the Padres rotation.

Darvish is yet to make his third start this spring, but his first two starts sailed smoothly with five scoreless innings.

The decision:

Tingler will likely choose between Snell and Darvish, with Musgrove and Paddack following. There is no bad choice between Snell and Darvish, and it might come down to who will be on regular rest because it is that close. It’s a good problem to have.

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