We’ve heard an awful lot of chatter over the years about the Padres trying to acquire premium MLB rotation pieces — Noah Syndergaard, etc. They’ve yet to swing such a deal, but nevertheless have managed to compile rather an interesting slate of starters.
While much of the excitement has remained focused on the future — MacKenzie Gore, Luis Patino, and more — that tends to obscure the present. There’s an intriguing blend of reasonable expectations and soaring upside in the unit on hand.
Let’s start with a few projections …
The composite expectations of ZiPS & Steamer present rather a favorable view of the Friars’ starting unit, predicting ~3 WAR performances from Chris Paddack, Garrett Richards, and Dinelson Lamet. That system likes Paddack a bit more than the other two, due mostly to an expectation that he’ll make three more starts. ZiPS sees Joey Lucchesi as a sturdy 2.5 WAR hurler and likes Zach Davies to deliver in the range of 1.5 WAR. It’s less than enthused about Cal Quantrill as the top depth piece.
PECOTA tells a broadly similar tale of possibilities, but bakes in added padding for the long-term health questions facing Richards and Lamet. The Baseball Prospectus computers are also significantly less optimistic when it comes to the quality of Lucchesi and Davies.
This is a good time to pause and consider the context. Getting ~13 WAR out of a rotation would mean having one of the ten or so best staffs in baseball. In terms of projections, the Fangraphs numbers put the San Diego starting group behind the Dodgers but slightly ahead of the Diamondbacks on paper. 13 is a pretty strong number as mean expectations go. Even with superstar Jacob deGrom, but sans Noah Syndergaard, the Mets sit at a ~15 WAR projection.
Of course, that PECOTA projection hints at the real downside concern here. Both Richards and Lamet returned last year from Tommy John surgery. We’ve seen plenty of hurlers put that procedure in the rearview mirror, but some can run into difficulties — sometimes as other, potentially connected health problems arise — after showing initial promise. (Matt Harvey, anyone?) The hope is to unleash Paddack fully after keeping him on a leash last year, but he’s also a fairly recent TJ recipient.
And what of the other members of the staff? Davies has mostly produced very solid numbers, but he struggled quite a lot in 2018 and his peripherals didn’t excite in 2019. Davies logged a 3.55 ERA last year but FIP (4.56), xFIP (5.20) and SIERA (5.43) were decidedly unimpressed. Lucchesi was steadier in 2019 but doesn’t have as long of a track record. These are solid and useful pitchers, but they’re unlikely to lead the way if the top trio falters.
Depth isn’t necessarily a strong suit, either. Quantrill hasn’t really shown a spark to this stage of his career. Luis Perdomo and Matt Strahm seem likelier to work out in the bullpen. Other 40-man members — Adrian Morejon, Michael Baez, Ronald Bolanos — are quite speculative as immediate-term MLB starters. There are some non-roster players with experience in Jerad Eickhoff (looking to bounce back after washing out with the Phillies), Seth Frankoff (back from a successful KBO stint), Jacob Nix and Brett Kennedy (outrighted after struggling in 2018 debuts with the Pads). But it’s tough to rely much upon that slate of players.
Frankly, though, the reasonably anticipated scenario and the downside scenario aren’t the interesting ones. This is a season in which the Friars face long odds — if indeed it gets underway at all. Upside is where it’s at.
When it comes to ceiling, there’s a lot to like about this staff. Let’s start with Paddack, who faded as he got deep into a personal-high workload of 140 2/3 innings. He has now handled a full season in the majors and can build off of that without restraint. Last year, as a 23-year-old rookie, he pitched to a 3.33 ERA with 9.8 K/9 and 2.0 BB/9 over 26 starts. With further growth, he could blossom into a legitimate #1 starter.
And hang on … are we underestimating Richards and Lamet? The former didn’t exactly return to top form in the results department late in 2019, but the fact he was able to get back to competitive action was quite promising. If he can work anywhere near his career norm (3.60 ERA) he’d be a huge piece for the Pads. The flamethrowing former Angels ace arguably has ceiling beyond that.
Lamet is perhaps even more interesting. He not only was able to make it through 14 starts in 2019, working to a solid 4.07 ERA, but generated an eye-popping 12.9 K/9. Lamet showed bigger velocity (96+ mph average fastball) and swinging-strike ability (14.0% SwStr) than he did in his rookie season.
It isn’t altogether impossible to imagine a three-headed monster forming at the top of this Padres staff … if everything breaks right. Combined with the two other quality starters — not to mention a similarly intriguing relief mix fronted by Kirby Yates, Emilio Pagan, and Drew Pomeranz — you can begin to see the possibilities for a pitching-led Padres breakout. This is all the more interesting since we’re looking at a short-season format where depth may not matter to quite the same extent (or, at least, not in quite the same way) as usual.
Is that likely to happen? Not so much. And any hopes of Gore and/or Patino streaking to the majors in 2020 likely went out the window when the coronavirus arrived, eliminating the potential for a typical minor-league season. That robs another upside scenario. Still, the Padres’ rotation is a particularly interesting one to watch … or, it will be if and when we finally get ballgames rolling.