SAN DIEGO -- Friday's Trade Deadline came and went, and the starting-pitching options in San Diego are the same as they ever were. (Well, that is, minus Chris Paddack, who strained his left oblique shortly after the Deadline passed in a particularly cruel twist of fate.)
We knew all along that Padres general manager A.J. Preller was liable to surprise us, and his decision not to add a starting pitcher certainly qualifies. That's not to say Preller didn't want to add. The Padres pursued José Berríos and Max Scherzer but were outbid.
From there, the decision-making is curious. Not only did the Padres miss out on a front-of-the-rotation starter, they didn't add a starter, period. The rotation depth in San Diego is jarringly thin, but the front office determined that the other options on the trade market simply weren't good enough -- and not worth the price of their prospect talent.
"We feel like we have enough from a starting-pitching standpoint," Preller said Friday, and right or wrong, those words could make or break the Padres’ season.
So do the Padres have enough starting pitching? The answer isn't as straightforward as it seems.
An underperforming ace
Preller's first justification for not adding a starter was to look internally.
"We have starters that we believe in," Preller said. "We could've added a starting pitcher, but if the other four or five guys don’t pitch like they're capable of, honestly, it's not going to matter."
And while that statement is true of the entire underperforming rotation, it's particularly true of Yu Darvish. The Padres acquired him to be an ace, and he was an ace for three months.
He was not an ace in the fourth. Darvish posted a 7.36 ERA in five July starts, and he dealt with back and hip troubles that landed him on the injured list in the middle of the month.
Darvish said it's a feel thing; he's not locating his pitches where he wants them. Whatever the reason, he needs to be better. When the Padres missed out on Scherzer, the onus fell squarely back on Darvish.
Staring down the prospect of a winner-take-all NL Wild Card Game against a division rival, the Padres would feel a lot more comfortable if they entered that game with the first-half version of Darvish than the second.
Snell’s shot at redemption
The Padres' hopes for a division title are fleeting, but they haven’t completely evaporated. They will soon, however, if Blake Snell’s season doesn’t turn around in a big way. Snell owns a 5.44 ERA through 19 starts this year. He hasn’t been anything close to the ace the Padres thought they were acquiring in December.
“I’ve got to do my part to be the best me, finish as strong as I can possibly finish to help this team have a legit push to make the playoffs,” Snell said. “I’ll be disappointed at how I’ve pitched this season, period. But the only way I’d think differently is if we win a World Series.
“So that’s my focus now -- do the best I can to dominate every outing from here on out. If we get to the playoffs, [I need to] be the guy that steps up and does what I should’ve been doing the entire season. If I can do that, and we win a World Series, it’ll be my favorite season ever.”
The thing is, that version of Snell exists. He’s won a Cy Young Award. Last October, he stifled some of the best offenses in the sport.
There are other question marks on the Padres’ pitching staff. Maybe Paddack returns and breaks out. Maybe Ryan Weathers (or dare we say MacKenzie Gore) takes a surprising step forward. But no one has a bigger upside for the final two months than Snell. No one has more potential to change the outlook of this rotation.
“We need to get Blake going,” said pitching coach Larry Rothschild. “That's the obvious.”
Time to ride the bullpen
Ideally, Darvish and Snell are thriving, and Paddack gets healthy soon. It’s rarely that simple.
And that’s where this bullpen comes in. The Padres' relief ERA is 2.94 this season, easily the best mark in baseball. They just added Daniel Hudson, one of the best back-end arms on the market. And now they’re looking at inserting Matt Strahm and Dinelson Lamet -- two electric arms coming back from injuries.
For the stretch run, the Padres are looking at a bullpen with perhaps 10 trustworthy arms, including six or seven that they’d feel good about in high-leverage situations.
“It just puts everybody in position to pitch at the top of their games, and it gives us a chance to mix and match a little bit, deploying the arms when we need them,” Rothschild said.
The Padres have played more games than any other team in the Majors. Thus, they’ll have more off-days down the stretch than any other team in the Majors. Those off-days should prove especially valuable in re-energizing a bullpen that’s about to get worked heavily.
The late-season schedule features a healthy dose of games against the Giants and Dodgers. Those are games the Padres need to win, and strategically, they’ll look more like playoff baseball than regular-season baseball. That means quick hooks for underperforming starters and high-leverage bullpen arms deployed early and often.
“There’s a lot of different ways to win,” Preller said.
A path through the playoffs?
It’s not exactly palatable for the Padres to look at playoff possibilities that don’t include a division title. That’s been their goal all season. Still is.
But according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds, there’s basically a three-in-four chance they end up playing in the NL Wild Card Game. Like it or not, it’s time to start planning to navigate that challenge.
As it turns out, the Padres might be set up nicely for the early rounds of the postseason. They’ll presumably send Darvish to the mound for the Wild Card Game. If Darvish is Good Darvish, you ride him. If not, he gets a quick hook, and you turn it over to a series of the most electric relief arms in baseball. Whatever wins you one game, you do it, and then you get a day to reset.
Now, you’re in the NL Division Series, lining up Joe Musgrove for Games 1 and 5 and Darvish, fully rested, for Game 3. What about Games 2 and 4? Well, ideally Snell and Paddack finish strong and assert themselves as part of the playoff rotation.
But if they don’t, here’s a question worth pondering: Do the Padres need them in the NLDS? With a reliable bullpen -- and off-days after Games 2 and 4 -- is there harm in starting, say, Lamet or Strahm and navigating a bullpen day?
And, sure, maybe that strategy doesn’t work in the later rounds of the playoffs. But if the Padres -- with all of their current issues -- find themselves in mid-October asking how they can navigate a seven-game series, well, they’d be more than happy to welcome that challenge.