Richards 'really, really pumped' to be healthy

March 4th, 2020

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres turned some heads this winter with their decision not to sign a starting pitcher. They had a young rotation with several question marks, after all. Wouldn't a veteran free agent with a proven track record help solidify that group?

Thing is, the Padres did make an offseason signing to better their 2020 rotation. They just didn't make it during this offseason.

It was fifteen months ago that San Diego committed $15.5 million to , as he recovered from Tommy John surgery. The 31-year-old right-hander returned to make three starts last September, but that was beside the point. The Padres didn't sign Richards for last year. They signed him for 2020.

Well, it's 2020. And Richards is precisely where the Padres want him to be. He's fully recovered from surgery and poised to sit toward the front of a young rotation.

In the Padres' 9-0 victory over the Brewers on Tuesday, Richards made his spring debut by pitching two scoreless frames. His fastball sat in the mid-90s and he struck out the first two hitters he faced with a sharp slider.

"There's always areas to work on," Richards said. "But I thought today was just a great introduction to getting back out there."

That's really all the Padres want from Richards. They want him out there. He's spent most of the last four seasons on the sideline, having started only 31 games in that span.

"It's just nice to be healthy, man," Richards said. "It's nice to be throwing in a game atmosphere, not feeling any pain."

When healthy, Richards has established himself as a legit front-of-the-rotation weapon. He's pitched just 523 1/3 innings in the last six seasons. But among the 128 pitchers with that many innings, he ranks 14th with a 3.23 ERA and 24th with a 1.18 WHIP.

Richards pairs his high-octane fastball with two high-spin breaking pitches that regularly induce swings and misses. On Tuesday, after he froze Eric Sogard for his first strikeout, Richards got Omar Narvaez to chase one in the dirt for his second strikeout.

"The breaking ball is the difference-maker," said pitching coach Larry Rothschild. "There's a lot of deception, and the velocity, with his deception, creates tough at-bats."

Before Richards' outing on Tuesday, Rothschild counseled patience. Richards has spent most of the past two seasons on the sideline. His return won't be linear, and it might take some time for Richards to fully regain his feel -- especially as he ramps up toward a starter's workload.

But Rothschild still gets excited about the mid-90s fastball with late life. He can still enjoy the filthy breaking pitches. The version of Garrett Richards that Rothschild has seen in the Peoria Sports Complex bullpen looks an awful lot like the version he coached against with the Yankees for all those years in the American League.

"It's all there," Rothschild said. "There's no question."

Richards will serve as a veteran presence in a Padres rotation that features young arms like Chris Paddack, and . Top prospects and could soon join that mix. Ultimately, the Padres were content with that group -- plus Richards -- and that's why they stayed quiet during the offseason.

Richards is clearly the elder statesman in that group, and he brings plenty of perspective to the table. If anything, the past few seasons have given Richards an even greater appreciation for being healthy and able to pitch.

"It's everything," Richards said. "Not only the peace of mind, but just happiness in general, to be back playing baseball and not rehabbing. I'm really, really pumped about that."

The Padres are, too. They've been waiting 15 months for this.