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Should Padres sign or trade for top pitching?

@AJCassavell
November 19, 2019

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres are looking for a front-line starting pitcher. True, we knew that a month ago. But the first few weeks of the offseason have served to reinforce that notion. San Diego has reportedly checked in with a handful of top free agents, and general manager A.J.

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres are looking for a front-line starting pitcher.

True, we knew that a month ago. But the first few weeks of the offseason have served to reinforce that notion.

San Diego has reportedly checked in with a handful of top free agents, and general manager A.J. Preller is almost certainly going to explore the trade market for a starter. He did so last offseason and he did so at the Trade Deadline.

The Padres have two ways in which they might accomplish their goal.

"You want to look at different avenues," Preller said last week at the General Managers Meetings in Scottsdale, Ariz. "You want to look at different ways to do it. You're constantly weighing the value of signing a free agent ... versus the value of [trading for] players."

That's not an easy task, and the market is constantly changing. Preller will be walking a tightrope over the next few months as he looks to address the Padres' biggest need, while maintaining enough flexibility to tinker elsewhere on the roster.

The case for a trade

If there's a player on the trade market this winter, he'll probably be linked to the Padres. That's the nature of the market. Rival GMs will be eager to raid the San Diego farm system for its top-shelf prospects.

In the past, Preller has been reluctant to part with those prospects, but he seems ready to do so this winter.

"You build up depth and you have a good farm system with the idea that not everybody is going to play for the Padres," he said.

In that regard, the case for a trade is obvious. The Padres have enough prospect depth that their farm system shouldn't take too big a hit from one trade. It would also help keep them financially flexible in the future, as they look to solidify their offense.

The case against a trade

Who's even available? The Padres have been linked with Noah Syndergaard for as long as they've been considered buyers. But Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen has said Syndergaard isn’t available. Those words aren't binding, of course, but based on Van Wagenen's actions, Syndergaard might cost a small fortune in prospect capital.

After that, the market seems unclear. Jon Gray is an intriguing option. His stuff is excellent, but his performance has seen major fluctuations. (Come to think of it, the same holds true with Syndergaard.) Regarding available pitchers from earlier this year: Matthew Boyd dropped off significantly in the second half. Mike Minor only has one year remaining on his contract. Corey Kluber missed the last five months with a couple of different injuries.

There's a chance the Padres would benefit immediately if they traded for any of those pitchers. But the cost might be prohibitive and ultimately not worth the risk, especially if Michel Baez or Adrian Morejon -- two prospect trade candidates -- can reach their ceilings and fill a void in the rotation eventually.

The case to sign a top-tier free agent

Stephen Strasburg and Gerrit Cole are the biggest names available, and the case to sign them is self-explanatory. If the Padres were to land either of those two, their rotation would suddenly seem complete.

Chris Paddack and Garrett Richards could slot into the 2-3 holes, where they're probably best suited. Then, Dinelson Lamet, Joey Lucchesi, Eric Lauer and Cal Quantrill could compete for the final two places while top prospects MacKenzie Gore and Luis Patiño attempt to break through.

Of course, Strasburg and Cole would help fill out any rotation in the Majors, so they won't come cheap. It’s worth noting that a number of those same points hold true if the Padres were to land either Zack Wheeler or Madison Bumgarner – less productive but less expensive options.

The case against signing a top-tier free agent

The void at the front of the Padres' rotation is the biggest hole on the roster. But it isn't the only one. The club expects to boost payroll this offseason. But there will be a limit to that spending. If the Padres were to sign Strasburg, it might prevent additions elsewhere. It could hinder their future spending, too – regarding both free agents and perhaps even extensions for some of their emerging young stars.

That's why a potential addition of Strasburg or Cole seems unlikely right now. The Padres believe they'd probably need to overpay for one of those two. Right now, they'd prefer not to (though it's worth noting how late they entered the Manny Machado sweepstakes last season).

San Diego has enough in-house prospect talent to trade for a front-line starter without making a significant long-term financial commitment. That would leave Preller with enough flexibility to sign an outfielder and a depth starter, while meeting the club’s goal to extend Kirby Yates.

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