They've got Musgrove, King and Yu ... and then who?

January 29th, 2024

In the buildup to Spring Training, is breaking down the Padres’ roster, position by position. Today's newsletter focuses on the starting rotation. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Everything else might've gone wrong for the Padres in 2023. But their starting rotation, in no uncertain terms, was one of the best in baseball. San Diego's starters finished the season with a Major League-best 3.69 ERA, and the man at the forefront of that rotation, Blake Snell, took home his second Cy Young Award.

It's going to be awfully tough to repeat that level of success in 2024.

Snell remains a free agent. Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo and Nick Martinez have already signed elsewhere. Those four combined to make 91 starts last season with a 3.15 ERA among them.

The Padres began their rotation overhaul last month with the trade that sent Juan Soto to the Yankees. They landed four pitchers who could contribute to the 2024 rotation. Clearly, however, there's work to be done before the Padres can feel comfortable about their group.

Here's a look at where things stand:

On the 40-man roster: Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish, Michael King, Pedro Avila, Jhony Brito, Jay Groome, Jairo Iriarte, Glenn Otto, Randy Vásquez, Matt Waldron

Departures: Snell, Wacha, Lugo, Martinez, Rich Hill

Top-30 prospects: Robby Snelling (Padres' No. 3, No. 60 overall), Dylan Lesko (Padres' No. 4, No. 63 overall), Drew Thorpe (Padres No. 6, No. 99 overall), Iriarte (Padres' No. 7), Adam Mazur (No. 8), Vásquez (No. 15), Victor Lizarraga (No. 17), Ryan Bergert (No. 18), Blake Dickerson (No. 19), Isaiah Lowe (No. 22), Garrett Hawkins (No. 23), Jagger Haynes (No. 29)

What's the state of the current rotation?

Prior to the Soto trade, when asked about his depleted rotation, manager Mike Shildt put it diplomatically, saying: "I like our anchors."

That's the optimist's view. The "anchors" Shildt was referring to are Musgrove and Darvish, San Diego's presumed Nos. 1 and 2 starters -- and the likeliest starters for the season-opening two-game Korea Series against the Dodgers.

Both Darvish (elbow) and Musgrove (shoulder) had their 2023 seasons cut short due to injury, but the team says both are healthy and going through their normal throwing progressions. Nothing can be certain on the health front until both ramp up in Spring Training. But for now, the Padres have two "anchors" to build their rotation around.

Beyond them, the only assured starter is King, the prize of the Soto deal. King was dominant down the stretch last season and posted a 2.23 ERA as a starter. After that trio? At this point, it's anyone's guess how the Padres fill out the final two or three places in their rotation.

Who else is in contention?

To start, the rest of that Soto deal included Vásquez, Brito and Thorpe -- three pitchers who will get a crack at the rotation come Spring Training. Though Vásquez and Brito are also bullpen options, Shildt recently confirmed that both would be built up as starters this spring -- making them part of the rotation mix.

Among the returning options, Avila and Waldron will get a shot. Iriarte is a prospect worth watching. But ...

The Padres are going to need more than that ... right?

Right. With two weeks until Spring Training, general manager A.J. Preller is still searching for starting pitching.

A year ago, the Padres signed Lugo and Wacha as high-upside, buy-low options. That's precisely the type of pitcher they'd like to slot into the back end of their rotation, given that re-signing Snell remains highly unlikely.

Of course, the Padres have also revamped their farm system, which gives them options on the trade front. If they’re looking for a starter to slot alongside Darvish and Musgrove toward the front of the rotation, that’s the avenue they’d take. (Remember, Preller used a deep farm system to acquire Darvish and Musgrove three winters ago. Is it possible something similar unfolds over the next few weeks? Right now, it seems unlikely. I still wouldn't rule it out.)

The verdict

As currently constructed, the Padres simply don't have enough to form a contending rotation. But, as Shildt noted, the anchors are in place.

Musgrove, Darvish and King are formidable at the top. Meanwhile, pitching coach Ruben Niebla has an extensive track record of developing young arms, which suggests he'll get the most out of the prospects and new arrivals. The future is bright, with King on board and Snelling, Iriarte, Thorpe and Lesko among the sport’s best starting-pitching prospects.

Still, to fill out this rotation, San Diego needs another acquisition. Probably two. Two more additions would give the Padres the requisite depth for a summer’s worth of attrition. One more addition would at least give them a passable group of Opening Day-roster options.

Until then, however, the San Diego rotation is glaringly incomplete.