The Padres have been yearning for some pitching (and somebody sexy to share a hot cup of cocoa). Maybe they should realize that what they're looking for is much closer than they seem to realize (but still wearing unsexy glasses and not realizing their true inner beauty yet).
It was reported shortly after the New Year by MLB.com reporter Corey Brock that the Padres were unlikely to add another starting pitcher through free agency this off-season. In short, the reasoning is that the Padres already have plenty of options, so unless a major upgrade exists, there is little point in using up resources or a roster spot on one. Looking at the market, both at the start of the off-season and in the present, gives this idea more credence than Padres' fans may be comfortable with.
Few options worth the hassle existed when the winter began, and even fewer remain at this late stage. Kyle Lohse is still out there, and will likely have to settle for a below-market deal either in terms of years or dollars because of it, but regardless of the price tag, he would cost the Padres their first-round pick and the substantial draft budget that comes with it. Under the new collective bargaining agreement, that's a significant issue, as fewer dollars to work with means less money to shift around, cutting into the ability to draft high-ceiling high school players with later picks in the first 10 rounds. With the Padres not receiving any compensation picks for 2013, giving up draft slots isn't something they -- or really, any -- teams can afford to do if they want to build from within.
Shaun Marcum, who doesn't have compensation attached to him, remains a free agent, but Marcum suffered from elbow trouble in 2012 and has a history of late-season fatigue. The Padres have quite enough arms with injury risk already, and the last thing they need is another tender elbow to babysit. Plus, Marcum is good, but he's not an ace, so it's not as if the payoff is worth the potential price in terms of a roster spot, dollars, and days lost to injury.
No, the Padres don't have an ace either, and might not even have a Marcum on their Opening Day roster. But what they do have are options, and plenty of them -- what is needed is patience. A look at the depth chart shows seven starting pitchers on the 40-man roster already: Clayton Richard, Edinson Volquez, Eric Stults, Tyson Ross, Anthony Bass, Casey Kelly, and Jason Marquis, who was re-signed earlier in the off-season.
Richard is a league-average hurler, and while he's miscast as at the top of the rotation, that's just a temporary thing. In 2012, Richard tied for the National League-lead in games started with 33, and his 218 innings ranked fourth in the NL and ninth in the majors. While he doesn't miss a ton of bats, Richard's ground-ball percentage was well over 50 percent for the first time in his career. He has excellent control, and if he can improve his command a bit in 2013 -- helping to cut down on homers -- then he can compensate for any added walks easily. He's been a bit below-average in terms of ERA+ for his whole career, but if he can log innings in a rotation that's seen its share of injuries, he'll have positive value.
Volquez should likely be moved to the bullpen, but it's probably not going to happen at a time when there are so many questions in the rotation. Unlike Richard, Volquez is neither consistent nor durable, and Petco Park was his saving grace in 2012. As a reliever, Volquez could ramp up his considerable velocity in short bursts, leaving the starting to more capable arms. When starters begin to return from injury, it's a very real possibility this will happen, especially if Volquez shows no improvement in the meantime.
The 32-year-old Eric Stults came out of nowhere in 2012, as he was a below-average pitcher without a defined role before coming to San Diego. While with the Padres, Stults kept his walks and homers down and posted the highest ground ball rates of his big-league career. Expecting a repeat performance is likely asking for trouble, but the Padres shouldn't need Stults in the same way they did last season.
Marquis, the last of the veterans, pitched poorly with Minnesota before the Padres scooped him up. Back in the NL and with Petco at his back, Marquis posted the loftiest strikeout rate of his career. Like Richard, he's back-end depth, and like Volquez, his time in the rotation is only as long as the Padres need it to be.
Out of the older group, Richard is the only candidate likely to stick in the rotation. The role of Tyson Ross, who hasn't pitched very well in his brief time in the majors, is unknown. It's not a group that will convince you the Padres don't need to sign a pitcher, but the fact they're temporary is the key. It's really Casey Kelly and Anthony Bass who matter, and between the two the Padres should be able to lock down two other spots in their rotation while waiting for their best arms to return from injury.
Kelly wasn't healthy for most of 2012, but when he was on the mound he built on the progress of 2011 by adding strikeouts, cutting his already low walk rate, and jumping from Triple-A to the majors. While his brief time in the bigs didn't go so well, there were flashes of the pitcher he should become. More experience pitching against major-league hitters should result in the better sequencing that helps to cut down on the hits and homers, and he's already shown an ability to cause batters to swing and miss. If he can figure that out in 2013, Kelly could be a solid four, or maybe even a three, but, as has always been the case with the shortstop-turned-starter, even then there may be further to go depending on the development of his secondary stuff and feel for pitching.
Bass's season was all over the place, but he retains promise. He began 2012 as a starter, posting a 2.89 ERA with 51 punch outs in 53 innings in his first 10 games. In his final 44 innings, though, that ERA skyrocketed to 6.95, while his walks and strikeouts moved much too close together. He'll be just 25 in 2013, and since the Padres are bothering with the likes of Marquis, Volquez, and Stults, it would be silly not to give him a second shot at starting. The worst thing that happens is he fails and has to be replaced by pitchers the Padres already have waiting in the wings.
Cory Luebke, the team's nominal top starter, underwent Tommy John surgery in late May. He should be back in San Diego come June or July given your standard recovery timetable, replacing whoever has shown themselves to be the lowest-hanging fruit in the rotation. In his 188 innings in the majors, Luebke owns a 111 ERA+ and 3.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio thanks to punching out well over a batter per inning. The lefty has been far more effective as a starter than as a reliever, as his fantastic command has translated to the majors to the point where his stuff comes out of his hand better than it should on paper. The 2012 Padres missed his production, and the 2013 iteration will be glad to have him back even if it's just for three or four months.
Then there is Andrew Cashner, who has plenty of questions surrounding him, but also plenty of talent. Had he not sliced his hand open in a hunting accident this off-season -- something the Padres are understandably cranky about -- he would already be in the rotation on Opening Day. He's slated to return at the midpoint as well, once he heals. Given the potential he flashed in 2012, that's a positive. Cashner whiffed over 10 batters per nine, more than making up for his walk rate, but the issue, as with so many other Padres' starters last year, was with injuries. In what is proving to be a year where the young San Diego players grow into or fail to fill their roles, though, 2013 is going to make sense as a season in which we get to see whether Cashner can survive the rigors of rotation work or not. The upside is there, but like with Bass, the floor could fall out and force a return to the pen.
Joe Wieland didn't have his Tommy John surgery until late July, meaning he is unlikely to come back until the season is near its end, but he's one more piece who will eventually need a roster spot and who has already earned his way to the majors with his minor-league performance. By the end of the year, there could very well be a rotation with Luebke, Cashner, Kelly, Bass, and Wieland in it, and even if you assume someone is going to fail, Richard is still around anyway.
Betting on that much to go right is probably asking too much, especially to a fanbase that just lived through the injury horrors of 2012. The Padres aren't without pitching prospects, though, and there's a chance that Robbie Erlin, brought to San Diego in the Mike Adams trade along with Wieland, could be in the majors this season. Erlin threw just 60 innings in 2012, because -- surprise! -- he dealt with injuries during the year, but they were high-quality frames. He'll likely begin 2013 at Triple-A, and should he continue to pitch well while remaining unscathed physically, he could replace one of the many questionable arms that will populate the Opening Day rotation, as Wieland did a year ago.
This isn't the sexiest group of arms, but the free agent market lacked -- and still lacks -- much in the way of upgrades, and with all of the young arms already on board for mid-season and into the future, giving up a draft pick for someone like Lohse makes little sense. The 2013 season wasn't going to be the year for the Padres in a difficult NL West, not without some luck, and bringing on a free agent pitcher wasn't going to change that.
Should they get some luck, though, the rotation will be in a good place heading into the second half of the year, if not earlier than that. Injuries have delayed a plan that was already in place, and unless an excellent trade opportunity arises for a top-flight hurler, the Padres' plan to stand pat and let things play out makes sense -- even if it's understandably frustrating when other clubs are busy making moves.