Manaea's second-half slide a looming issue

September 4th, 2022

LOS ANGELES -- In early April, just days before the regular season was set to begin, the Padres swung a surprise trade with Oakland to land Sean Manaea. They already had a deep starting rotation. But they learned a hard lesson about pitching depth in 2021, and Manaea had been a steady presence in the A’s rotation -- an innings-eater who rarely missed a start.

For half of this season, Manaea filled precisely that role in San Diego. He wasn't dominant. But he took the ball every fifth day and was usually quality. He carried a 4.11 ERA into the All-Star break, having notched a quality start in 13 of 17 first-half outings.

But things quickly unraveled on Manaea. Whatever worked for him in the first half stopped working in the second. His offspeed pitches became hittable. His fastball command eluded him.

Manaea's dreadful second half reached a nadir on Saturday night. In the Padres' 12-1 loss at Dodger Stadium, Manaea allowed eight runs on nine hits, including a trio of no-doubt homers. In the process, Manaea ran his second-half ERA to 8.36.

“Just some pitches in the middle, and when [the Dodgers] get going, they get rolling,” Melvin said.

Manaea used only one word to sum up his outing: “Horrible.”

This is a Padres team with its sights set squarely on the postseason. They’ve built themselves a three-game cushion over Milwaukee in the race for the final NL playoff spot and a half-game lead over Philadelphia for the second Wild Card. They like the position they’re in. But they’re not comfortable.

And, naturally, that raises some uncomfortable questions about Manaea’s presence in the team’s starting rotation:

What's next for Manaea?
If the Padres want to solidify their position in the NL Wild Card race, can they really afford to continue running Manaea out there every fifth day?

“I don’t make decisions like that after games,” Melvin said. “He’s performed really well for us. … He hasn’t for a stretch here. But my confidence in him has not waned.”

The schedule would seem to give the Padres options. They have four off-days in a 19-day stretch beginning on Thursday -- including both before and after next weekend’s series against the Dodgers at Petco Park. If Manaea were to continue to start on turn, he’d be scheduled to face L.A. again on Friday night.

Hard to envision that happening, considering how Manaea has fared against the Dodgers this season. He has surrendered 22 earned runs in three starts and hasn’t completed five innings in any of those outings.

What are the Padres’ options?
Three options, really. One of those is simply letting Manaea continue to pitch every fifth day. Considering the importance of these games, that feels least likely.

Another option would be skipping Manaea with the intention of trying to get him back on track. Perhaps a few extra bullpen sessions with pitching coach Ruben Niebla would hone some of Manaea’s command issues. Because of the forthcoming off-days, the Padres won’t need to use a fifth starter in their rotation until Sept. 17.

“At this point, it’s whatever I can do to help the team,” said a visibly frustrated Manaea. “If that’s not pitching, then sure.”

The last option would be to simply replace Manaea in the rotation entirely, moving him into a bullpen mop-up role. But … replace him with whom, exactly?

The Padres don’t have many length options. Reiss Knehr, who was recently called up, allowed four runs in relief of Manaea on Saturday. Meanwhile, right-hander Nick Martinez might have proven himself too valuable as a relief weapon to make a return to the rotation.

What does this mean for the playoff race?
The good news for the Padres? Their No. 5 starter may be struggling, but their 1-4 starters have been excellent. They could simply choose to ride the quartet of Blake Snell, Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish and Mike Clevinger heavily down the stretch (while sprinkling in a small number of spot starts -- from Manaea or someone else).

Then again, it would sure be useful to have a reliable No. 5. The Padres don’t want to tax their rotation too heavily before October (and they did employ a six-man rotation for most of the first half for that very reason).

The postseason schedule -- if the Padres were to make it that far -- has enough off-days that the Padres could use a four-man rotation. As it would happen, they presently have four excellent options for those rotation spots.

Clearly, the San Diego rotation is in much better shape than it was a year ago. But it still features its share of questions that need to be answered over the season’s final month.