Looking At The Padres’ Rotation Options

The Padres have been quite aggressive in recent years on all fronts, from signing free agents to trading for stars and extending their own players. That has shot their budget up to record heights, with Roster Resource currently estimating their payroll at $250MM. Up until a few years ago, they had only barely nudged past the $100MM mark, jumping to $174MM in 2021 and $211MM last year, per Cot’s Baseball Contracts.

Despite all that aggression, they’re going into the season with uncertainty in their rotation, both in the short-term and long-term. They should have a strong front three this year Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell. That leaves two question marks at the back, since Mike Clevinger and Sean Manaea reached free agency and signed elsewhere. Darvish and Snell are both slated to reach free agency after this year, opening up more holes in the future. MacKenzie Gore‘s inclusion in the Juan Soto trade also weakened the future outlook. So, who do they have on hand to step up and take these jobs? Let’s take a look at the candidates.

Nick Martinez

Martinez, 32, spent four seasons in Japan and parlayed that into a four-year deal with the Padres going into 2022, a deal that allowed him to opt out after each season. Last year was a mixed bag for Martinez, as he logged 106 1/3 innings with a 3.47 ERA. That’s solid production overall, but it came in the form of a 4.30 ERA over 52 1/3 innings as a starter and a 2.67 mark in 54 innings as a reliever.

Martinez opted out and re-signed with the club on another deal, this time on a three-year pact. The details are unusually complex as there are plenty of incentives, as well as a dual club/player option structure. Whether he can find better results as a starter this time around remains to be seen. It’s certainly a risk for the Friars, but at least it seems he comes with the floor of helping out of the bullpen.

Should Martinez truly establish himself as a starter, the club will be able to keep him around. Martinez will get paid a $10MM base salary this year and the team will then have to decide whether or not to trigger two $16MM club options for 2024 and 2025, essentially a two-year, $32MM extension. That affords them a bit more control over his future than his previous opt-out laden deal. However, if Martinez does not have a successful campaign and they turn down that option, he will get to decide whether or not to trigger two player options valued at $8MM each, essentially a two-year, $16MM extension. That gives the Friars upside and downside potential in the pact. Those dollar figures can also reportedly change based on incentives, although the exact details aren’t known.

Seth Lugo

Lugo, 33, is in a somewhat similar situation to Martinez, as he could potentially wind up in the rotation or in the bullpen. He made 23 starts in 2017-18 but only seven since, largely working as a reliever. That move was at least partially motivated by a “slight” tear that was discovered in his right ulnar collateral ligament in 2017.

Regardless, Lugo has served as an effective reliever since then, posting a 3.56 ERA over the past two years, and there’s some hope that his five-pitch mix can help him transition back into a rotation. It’s another risky move that the Padres were willing to take, giving Lugo two years and $15MM, with Lugo able to opt out after the first. He hasn’t topped 80 innings in a season since 2018 and it’s hard to know how smooth this switch will be.

If it goes well, there won’t be any long-term upside for the club, since Lugo will make a $7.5MM salary but can opt out of the same figure for 2024. If the experiment works, he’s likely to return to free agency and find a larger guarantee. If it fails, the Padres will still be on the hook for another season.

Adrián Morejón

Morejón, 24 in February, has long been one of the most exciting pitching prospects in the league. Baseball America placed him on their top 100 list for five straight years beginning in 2017. Various injuries slowed him down during his ascent to the majors and he’s yet to even pitch 70 official innings in any season of his career, majors or minors or combined.

Tommy John surgery in April of 2021 wiped out most of that season. He returned to health in 2022 but pitched in relief. The club reportedly still views him as a starter, but he will likely have workload concerns this year. Between the majors and the minors last year, he logged 47 1/3 frames. He should be able to push that up now that he’s further removed from the surgery, but getting to a full starter’s workload would be a lot to ask. He has just over three years of MLB service time now, giving him the ability to provide some long-term help to the club’s rotation if he stays healthy and makes good on his prospect pedigree in 2023.

Jay Groome

Groome, 24, was a 12th overall pick of the Red Sox in 2016. He was once a highly-touted prospect but has hit various speed bumps. Tommy John surgery wiped out his 2018 and most of his 2019, which was followed by the minors being canceled by the pandemic in 2020. He has since returned to health and posted decent results but with some of the prospect shine having worn off.

In 2022, which included a trade to the Padres in the Eric Hosmer deal, he pitched 144 innings between Double-A and Triple-A. The 3.44 ERA is nice, but his 22.8% strikeout rate is right around average and his 10.4% walk rate was on the concerning side. He’s yet to reach the majors and arguably has the greatest chance to provide future value to the club with his six seasons of control and one remaining option year.

Brent Honeywell Jr.

Honeywell, 28 in March, is also a former top prospect. A Rays draftee, he was on BA’s top 100 in five straight seasons from 2016-20. Similar to Morejón and Groome, injuries have prevented him from reaching his potential thus far. Tommy John surgery in 2018 put him on the shelf and he has dealt with various setbacks since then. He was healthy enough to throw 86 innings in 2021 between Tampa Bay and Triple-A Durham, with the club then dealing him to Oakland. However, more injury setbacks resulted in just 20 1/3 minor league innings for the A’s last year.

Honeywell seems to be healthy again at the moment, as he has tossed 28 innings in the Dominican Winter League. His 0.96 ERA in that time seems to have been enough to impress the Padres, as they signed him to their 40-man roster last week. It would make for a terrific bounceback story if he were to finally put it all together, but it’s hard to bank on him after pitching hard in the past five years. He still has less than a year of service time, giving the Padres plenty of upside if it all clicks, but Honeywell is also out of options and will have to produce in the big leagues right away to hang onto his roster spot.

Reiss Knehr/Pedro Avila/Ryan Weathers

These three are all on the 40-man roster and warrant a mention, although they are unlikely to be called upon except in an emergency. All three of them have gotten some big league time in recent seasons, getting fairly brief showings in swing roles. Weathers probably has the most upside of the trio since he’s just 23, whereas the others are going into their respective age-26 seasons. Weathers was considered a top 100 prospect going into 2021, but he has a 5.49 ERA in the big leagues so far and posted a 6.73 ERA in 123 Triple-A innings last year, getting bumped to the bullpen as the season wore on.

Wilmer Font

Font, 33 in May, is a real wild card. He was a journeyman in the majors for many years but went to Korea to play in the KBO in 2021. Over the last two years, he has been pitching at an ace level for the SSG Landers. He made 25 starts in 2021 with a 3.46 ERA and then 28 starts last year with a 2.69 mark. In that latter season, he got strikeouts at a 23.3% rate, walking only 4.7% of batters faced and he got ground balls on 51.6% of balls in play.

Success overseas doesn’t always translate to success in the majors, but Font wouldn’t be the first pitcher to underwhelm in North America but then return after a breakout elsewhere, with Miles Mikolas and Merrill Kelly some of the recent examples. Font isn’t currently on the 40-man and will have to earn his way back into the mix, but he will be an interesting one to watch.

Julio Teheran/Aaron Brooks

These two veterans have also been brought aboard on minor league deals. Teheran spent 2022 in Indy ball and the Mexican League, posting some decent numbers in 13 starts between various clubs. He then went to the Dominican for winter ball and posted a 3.49 ERA through eight starts there. He had a solid run with the Braves earlier in his career but got lit up in 2020 with a 10.05 ERA and then was injured for most of 2021.

Brooks was great in the KBO in 2020 and 2021, posting a 2.79 ERA over 36 starts in that time. However, his attempted return to the majors did not go well. He made five relief appearances for the Cardinals with a 7.71 ERA and got outrighted to the minors. In 15 Triple-A appearances, 13 starts, his ERA was 5.56.

All told, the Padres have lots of options here, but all of them have question marks. There’s a handful of faded prospects who still need to put injury concerns in the rearview mirror and another handful of veteran swingmen who might still end up better suited to the bullpen than the rotation. Musgrove-Darvish-Snell gives them a strong front three, meaning the Padres only really need a couple of these guys to step up. On the other hand, they are one injury away from someone in this group suddenly being in the #3 slot.

The Padres could always supplement their staff between now and Opening Day, but recent reporting has suggested they don’t have much more payroll space to work with. If they want to go the trade route, there are certainly options, such as the Marlins having plenty of arms available and the Brewers perhaps in a similar boat.

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