Strahm excelling in 'pen but eyes rotation spot

Lefty says he'll be preparing himself as a starter in offseason

September 5th, 2018

SAN DIEGO -- So long as he's pitching in the big leagues, isn't all that concerned about his role. He goes to great lengths to make that very clear. When Strahm is asked about starting, he points out that he's very happy to pitch in the 'pen. When he's asked about pitching in the 'pen, he adds that he'd be open to starting, too.

This offseason, however, there's no in between.

"I'm showing up to camp as a starter," Strahm said. "I'm going to come in, hopefully get an opportunity to compete for one of those five spots. As soon as October 1 hits, I'm preparing myself as a starter."

Strahm, 26, has already mastered the bullpen this season, having posted a 2.12 ERA and a sub-1 WHIP in his return from surgery on his torn left patellar tendon.

Following that surgery in July 2017, Strahm was traded from Kansas City to San Diego, a deal that is quickly becoming one of general manager A.J. Preller's best. He sent , and to the Royals for , Esteury Ruiz and Strahm.

Wood was released shortly thereafter. But Strahm has been a revelation, and Ruiz is a promising prospect who can play multiple infield spots and stole 49 bags at Class A Fort Wayne this season.

"[The trade] was another piece of the puzzle, potentially," Green said. "Matt Strahm could be right in the middle of our rotation next year, or he could be absolutely dominant out of the bullpen. Ruiz could come up someday and be a utility infielder that bounces around, steals bases, gets huge hits."

Green was quick to add that the Royals did what any sensible team would do. Knowing they were in their final year of contention before a number of free agents departed, they went for it.

But there are perks to being involved in a deal in which your trade partner's window is closing. Fourteen months later, the Padres are the clear winners -- and so is Strahm.

"I got traded from a team that's probably, now, two years behind where we are," Strahm said. "You look at it, if I wasn't traded, I'd be two years behind the Padres. I got traded, so I got to jump a little further on, and I'm super excited to see what these young guys can do to help us win."

San Diego's rotation features four rookies, and none of the five spots next season have been locked up. The Padres view Strahm as the potential ace up their sleeve. He's immensely talented but hasn't yet been turned loose.

Because of his injury, Strahm has been treated with caution, his workload limited. Green hadn't used Strahm in consecutive games this season until the final two days of August.

"I totally understand the situation," said Strahm, who has made 40 starts in his career between the Minors and Majors. "But I'm still always in Andy's ear telling him I'm ready."

He's in luck. Next spring, the kid gloves are off. Strahm could easily be a pivotal everyday bullpen piece. But the Padres see value in a transition to the rotation, and they're going test it.

"I would rather see guys get every opportunity to start until they can prove they can't," said pitching coach Darren Balsley. "He's already proven he's a very good reliever."

"There's no reason he couldn't be a starter," said catcher . "He's got everything -- the makeup, the command. He's got everything it takes to be a starter. And the cool thing is that we know he could relieve, so if it doesn't work out, then it's fine."

Balsley brings up and as hybrids who went to San Diego and thrived when given regular starting opportunity. He thinks the same is possible with Strahm, but he cautions that Strahm first needs to build strength and stamina during the offseason. (He wasn't afforded that opportunity last year, coming off major knee surgery.)

Hedges plays devil's advocate and brings up Brad Hand. Two years ago, the Padres were similarly tempted to use Hand in the rotation. They decided against it, noting Hand's struggles as a starter with Miami. Sure enough, Hand quickly developed into an elite left-handed relief weapon.

"Brad Hand wasn't good as a starter, but then he was arguably the best reliever in baseball," Hedges said. "We don't have to push anything, because [Strahm] could be the best reliever in baseball. He could be Brad Hand."

Well, not exactly Brad Hand.

"He's got four plus pitches," Hedges said of Strahm. "That's the difference between him and Brad Hand."

That pitch mix is particularly enticing. And in some ways, it's under-utilized when Strahm pitches short stints out of the 'pen and relies heavily on his fastball and slider. Even in his five starts this season, he was used as an opener and never lasted much longer than one trip through the opposing lineup.

Sounds like Strahm will get the chance to do that next season -- though he offers a quick reminder that he'd be happy either way.

"No preference," he said with a smile. "I feel like I can excel at both. It's probably unique, legitimately not caring which you do. But as far as the offseason goes, I'll prepare as a starter."