Brito, Waldron kick off auditions for Padres' rotation

February 23rd, 2024

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Cactus League play began Thursday, but the Padres’ rotation battle formally got underway on Friday afternoon in Glendale.

With two places currently available at the back end of the San Diego rotation, and -- two of the most obvious contenders -- faced the Dodgers at Camelback Ranch.

Brito, who arrived in the December trade that sent Juan Soto to the Yankees, allowed two runs across two innings, including Freddie Freeman’s opposite-field solo homer in the first. Waldron followed with a pair of scoreless frames.

“We want to evaluate against the better guys, and that was a great opportunity,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said after his team’s 4-1 loss. “I thought they both handled themselves very well.”

The Padres’ spring rotation battle is as wide open as it’s been in years. During the offseason, they saw the departures of Nick Martinez, Michael Wacha and Seth Lugo. Blake Snell remains a free agent.

As such, there are only three locks for the Opening Day rotation at the start of camp -- Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish and Michael King. The Padres might still look to free agency or the trade market to add another starter. But for now, there are two rotation spots available and about half a dozen contenders.

“Yeah, there’s a spot to be taken,” Waldron said. “But you’re not just going to walk in here and expect it. You have to take it. You just have to prepare. No matter how many spots [are available], there are some guys here that are very impressive.”

Joining Brito and Waldron in the rotation race are Randy Vásquez, Jairo Iriarte, Pedro Avila, Glenn Otto and Jay Groome. Prospects Robby Snelling, Drew Thorpe and Adam Mazur will get a look, as well (though all three are almost certainly destined to start the year in the Minors).

It’s an inexperienced group, to say the least. Among those names, only Otto has accrued a full year of service time in the big leagues. Brito, meanwhile, made 25 appearances for the Yankees as a rookie last season, including 13 starts, as he posted a 4.28 ERA. He isn’t guaranteed a big league job, but he should be considered a favorite -- if not in the rotation, then as a swing-man/sixth-starter type.

“It doesn’t really affect me if I get moved to the bullpen or if I’m starting,” Brito said through interpreter Danny Sanchez. “My mindset doesn’t change. My mentality doesn’t change. It’s all about attacking and getting outs.”

Brito’s first-inning fastball to Freeman caught a bit too much plate, but otherwise he was sharp and efficient in his Padres debut. Generally heavy on sinkers and changeups, Brito upped his curveball usage a bit, noting he’ll need that pitch a bit more as a starter.

Brito went through the L.A. lineup once, leaving the top of the order to Waldron -- who made quick work of some tough Dodgers hitters. Waldron is one of the sport’s few remaining knuckleballers -- though he’s not necessarily a knuckleballer in the truest sense. He throws the pitch only about a third of the time, blending it with a low-90s fastball and a slider. All three of those offerings were working for Waldron on Friday.

Of course, late-February results won’t determine the outcome of the Padres’ rotation race. Still, both Waldron and Brito touted the benefits of facing a Dodgers lineup with a number of its regulars.

“It was nice to get Freddie Freeman and some of the big dogs to start,” Waldron said.

“I liked it a lot,” Brito said. “It gives you an idea of plan-of-attacks and certain pitches. … I enjoyed the experience, getting to face a division rival.”

The rotation race wasn’t the only roster battle on display Friday afternoon. The Padres’ starting lineup featured almost exclusively players who are vying for the three to four remaining bench spots. (The only exception was Kyle Higashioka, who already has one, as the team’s backup catcher).

Cal Mitchell drove in the Padres’ only run with an RBI single in the third. Jakob Marsee also singled and worked a walk. Both are in the mix for the available outfield spots.