PHOENIX -- At long last, the Padres' rotation is getting healthy. Now, how do they get the most out of it?
Yu Darvish returned from the injured list on Thursday, and Chris Paddack did so on Monday, giving the Padres their four primary rotation options, alongside Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove. Jake Arrieta is expected to be available soon as well.
Including Monday, the Padres have 30 starts left to cover (not counting the resumption of their July 21 game against the Braves, which only has 2 1/2 innings left to play).
Considering the nature of the standings, the Padres can't afford to let any of those starts go to waste. In fact, the staff has expressed a desire to ride its best starters as often as possible.
"As long as they're healthy and able to go, we're going to be leaning on those guys down the stretch, that's for sure," said manager Jayce Tingler.
So what, exactly, does that look like? A few things to note:
• The Padres are almost certainly done letting Ryan Weathers try to work through his growing pains in the midst of the Wild Card race. Once a central figure in the rotation, Weathers has struggled lately, posting a 13.50 ERA in his past six outings. He’s likely destined for mop-up innings in the ‘pen.
• Whenever Arrieta returns, he needs to perform. The right-hander owns a 7.13 ERA in 21 starts this season. If he gets knocked around, he might not get another chance, at least in a traditional starting capacity.
• The Padres' rotation won't be so straightforward in September. Because of a number of off-days, they'll almost certainly move starts around to ensure they're getting Musgrove, Snell and Darvish as many starts as possible.
The Padres trailed the Reds by 1 game entering play Monday night's game against the D-backs. To that end, Musgrove says the Padres have already begun having conversations internally about maximizing their rotation in an effort to secure the second Wild Card spot in the National League.
"I told Jayce, I told [pitching coach Ben] Fritz, I said I'm ready to take the ball every fifth day every time, whether it's skipping off-days or taking somebody's spot in the rotation," Musgrove said. "We've got to win games, and I feel like I'm pitching the best I've pitched in my career right now, so I want to take the ball as much as I can and be out there and have a chance to win as many games as I can down the stretch."
It's a sensible strategy considering how well Musgrove has pitched this season. He owns a 2.85 ERA, the best mark among all Padres starters. Meanwhile, Snell has been red-hot since the start of August, and Darvish was the Padres' best starter before he was beset by injuries.
There are several variables the Padres will take into account as they shape their September rotation, namely: the health of their starters, the state of the race, and the performance of guys like Paddack and Arrieta. Still, it seems prudent for the Padres to get Musgrove, Snell and Darvish as many starts as possible.
"We're going to look at where we're at in the next couple weeks here and decide if we want to skip the off-days and run our best guys out there as much as we can to try and lock this thing in," Musgrove said.
Then again, the Padres also see some benefit in not pressing the gas pedal too hard, to the point where fatigue might affect the performance of their best pitchers.
We’re going to learn their approach to that riddle soon enough. With the off-days they have coming up, the Padres wouldn't need to start Arrieta until their series in San Francisco Sept. 13-16. But Tingler noted that it's possible Arrieta returns this weekend against the Astros -- likely as a starter.
But why would the Padres start Arrieta instead of Snell in that series, with every start absolutely critical at this point? They’ll have two off-days next week to re-align their rotation and avoid a potential Arrieta start if they want to.
If the Padres ignore that possibility and choose to start Arrieta instead, it would be a curious decision. It would also provide some insight into their outlook for their September rotation. It’s a delicate balance the Padres must strike down the stretch: They want their best pitchers on the mound as often as possible. They also need to make sure those pitchers are fresh … so they can be pitching like their best pitchers.