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Padres look to improve rotation from within

@AJCassavell
March 7, 2019

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres signed Manny Machado last month. They expect meaningful offensive contributions from three of the 26 best prospects in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. Wil Myers is healthy again, and Eric Hosmer could be due for a bounce-back.

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres signed Manny Machado last month. They expect meaningful offensive contributions from three of the 26 best prospects in baseball, according to MLB Pipeline. Wil Myers is healthy again, and Eric Hosmer could be due for a bounce-back.

For the first time in more than a decade, there's optimism that the San Diego offense could be legitimately good.

Which brings us to the next question -- the one that’s asked every time the offense’s merits are brought up: What about the rotation?

On the whole last year, it was not good. The Padres' 5.09 ERA by their starting pitchers was the worst in the National League, and general manager A.J. Preller hasn't made a meaningful addition to the current group. Even with a number of free agents still available, he seems unlikely to do so.

By outside expectations -- both man-made and computer generated -- the starting five projects as a major weakness. The Padres hear those criticisms. They understand those criticisms. And they want you to know you're going to be wrong.

"We know there's nothing proven here," said catcher Austin Hedges. "There's no reason for anyone outside here to say, 'Oh, yeah, they're going to go out and dominate.’ We haven't proven that yet. Our pitchers understand that. But they also know how much we believe in them. ... We'll definitely surprise some people."

Hedges isn't alone in that belief. It permeates from the rotation to the coaching staff all the way up to the front office. The Padres didn't address their biggest weakness externally, because they felt they could do so internally.

That means top prospects like Chris Paddack and Logan Allen -- who have combined for zero big league innings among them -- have been given a legitimate chance to make the rotation. They’ve made the most of it thus far, combining for a 2.16 ERA with more than a strikeout per inning.

"The guys in the clubhouse that are veterans -- they feel that," said manager Andy Green. "They don't care if a guy has pitched in Double-A, Triple-A, Single-A or five years in the big leagues. They just want to feel that when that guy toes the rubber, they're going to win a baseball game. Some of these young guys are giving that impression."

Of the 12 starters competing for jobs, nine are 25 or younger. The average age is 24.3. The Padres are quick to say that the stuff and makeup of their rotation candidates plays well above their ages.

"Once you're on the field, it doesn't matter how young you are," said Robbie Erlin, once a 23-year-old who broke camp with the club and suddenly the 28-year-old elder statesman and longest-tenured Padre. "It doesn't matter, the age difference between a hitter and a pitcher. If you're hitting your spots and making pitches, anyone can get outs."

The Padres are no stranger to moving their pitchers quickly to the big leagues. Last year, Joey Lucchesi and Eric Lauer were promoted during the season's first four weeks. They were the first pitchers to reach the big leagues from the 2016 Draft class.

"These guys are all getting looked at through that lens," Green said. "If they prove they're the best option right now, [Preller] has proven time and time again that he doesn't shy away from utilizing those guys."

After Lauer and Lucchesi, there are three places available in the rotation. How young are the Padres willing to go? That remains to be seen. Paddack will be on an innings limit this year. Allen has been excellent at every level, but he's only 21.

Still, they aren't exactly trying to supplant rotation staples. Here are the 12 remaining candidates and their career starts:

Luis Perdomo: 59

Robbie Erlin: 37

Joey Lucchesi: 26

Eric Lauer: 23

Bryan Mitchell: 20

Jacob Nix: 9

Matt Strahm: 8

Brett Kennedy: 6

Chris Paddack, Logan Allen, Nick Margevicius, Cal Quantrill: 0.

The Padres’ 12 rotation candidates have combined for 188 starts, with more than half coming from Perdomo and Erlin, who could end up in the bullpen. That's fewer than 53 active pitchers, including noteworthy free agents like Gio Gonzalez and Bartolo Colon and five more than Dallas Keuchel.

It's telling that Preller hasn't been all that aggressive in pursuing those arms. He's always liable to surprise, but, internally, the Padres are planning to pull together a rotation from in-house options only.

"You can see it," Erlin said. "The young guys are hungry to get better. We all are. And we're hungry to prove something to the league and our division."

Ready or not, the young Padres starters are going to get their chance.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.