The Padres pitching staff improved in 2013... they jumped from the 30th ranked pitching staff in terms of fWAR all the way up to 29th. The obvious problem with the Padres pitching staff the last few seasons has been that the team has had issues getting its most talented players on the field. The Tommy John survivor's club alone - Casey Kelly, Joe Wieland, and Cory Luebke - would be a promising young trio of starters any team would love to have. Compounding this issue, much of the team's most promising pieces are further down on the organizational depth chart. These factors conspire to create a sick reality where Russ Ohlendorf, Jeff Suppan, Kip Wells, and Jason Marquis combined to start about 15% of the team's games in the last two years. If it were possible, I would jump in the Delorean and travel back to 1955 just to make sure this doesn't happen.
But 2014 is a different story. The prospects are older, the injured players are healthier, and major league reinforcements have arrived. For the first time in the last several years, the starting rotation appears to be set well-ahead of Christmas. The front office isn't trolling the January bargain bin for an innings-eater, and it certainly isn't revisiting the 2009 strategy of "wait, you need FIVE starters?". Barring any weirdness, the opening 2013 rotation appears to be set. The order is purely my supposition, but the pieces aren't likely to change.
2. Josh Johnson
3. Tyson Ross
4. Eric Stults
5. Ian Kennedy
We know these guys pretty well at this point. There's a former ERA-champ, and an ex Cy Young runner-up in there, but the two hard throwing young righties are the make-or-break pieces in the rotation. Cashner and Ross were nothing short of dominant down the stretch last year, finally getting consistent results with their overwhelming stuff. The pair posted second-half ERAs of 2.14 and 2.93 respectively - on the strength of a sub-.200 batting average against, k/BB ratios well above 3, and a healthy >50% ground ball rate. If there is any reason to be excited about the 2013 rotation, it's the chance to see what these two can do with 30 starts. Of course the concern is whether the pair can stay healthy. Cashner has a surgically repaired shoulder and a laundry list of seemingly unrelated injuries. Tyson Ross and his brother Joe seem to be genetically predisposed to exploding shoulders. It's worth noting that Tyson also has a wicked delivery that makes scouts nervous since it generates such little momentum from the loading phase, seemingly putting big stress on his elbow. He hasn't been hurt yet, but I said the same thing when I was getting into my first relationship.
Johnson and Kennedy didn't look as good in 2012, but their accomplishments and track record are difficult to ignore. Both are just 29 years old and haven't lost significant velocity, so it isn't wildly optimistic to think they can bounce back to above-average starters. Kennedy represents a particularly low-risk piece since even if he doesn't return to form, he would still represent a stable innings-eater who is rarely hurt. If they are even replacement level for 150 innings each, you are looking at a 2.5 WAR improvement over the 300 innings Marquis, Richard, and Volquez contributed last season. Along with Eric Stults, the team's federally-mandated "crafty lefty", the bounce back candidates figure to provide meat to the rotation.
We all know Huston Street will be the closer heading into 2014. In 2012 he was lights out like when your roommate "forgets" to pay the electric bill. He made us all nervous when he lost his slider for weeks at a time in 2013, but he managed to survive on his wiles until his stuff largely returned to form in the second half (your daily reminder to be wary of small sample sizes among relievers). The rest of the bullpen features a lot of guys who are growing into their roles.
Closer - Huston Street
8th inning/fireman - Joaquin Benoit
7th inning - Nick Vincent
All-purpose reliever - Tim Stauffer
Middle relief - Dale Thayer
Middle relief - Brad Boxberger
Lefty specialist - Who? PATRICK SCHUSTER
The impressive but unproven Nick Vincent is going to see his role expanded in 2013, and will accordingly need to make the biggest jump. So far he's been difficult to hit, he doesn't give up free passes, and he limits home runs. This is pretty much the ideal skillset for a setup guy. His platoon splits aren't as bad as Gregerson, but left-handed hitters seem to give him more problems than righties.
Unlike Vincent, our old friend Tim Stauffer is equally effective against righties and lefties because of his dynamic cutter. With his famous stoicism, and ability to MAKE SOME F'ING PITCHES, Stauffer excels in tight spots - hitters manage just a .201 batting average against him in high-leverage situations. Couple this with his starter's repertoire and veteran acumen, the Stauff is a versatile bullpen piece, equally adept at rally-killing and serving as a multi-inning swingman. Vincent is probably a better bet to get you from the 8th to the 9th, but Stauffer is probably better at getting you out of jams unscathed in a variety of scenarios.
The Benoit acquisition has been covered at length here at Gaslamp Ball. Padres fans should know they are getting an all-purpose high-leverage reliever without a whole lot of specialization or weaknesses. With this in mind, I think Bud Black will utilize him in the same way he deployed Mike Adams. From 2009-2011 Adams was one of baseball's most dominant relievers. Instead of using him to close out games or pitch in strictly the 8th inning, Black often made the call to Adams mid-inning in order to extinguish rallies and preserve leads in truly high-leverage situations. In the presence of a solid closer and another good setup man, Mike Adams was the glue that held the bullpen together in 2009 and 2010, helping the team to a 51-40 record in one-run games. Benoit will probably be the go-to-guy in high leverage situations next season, sliding the other members of the ‘pen to more manageable roles.
Thayer is a durable reliever with closer experience and an unparalleled facial hair pedigree. His performance has been up and down, but the depth will keep him in low-leverage situations. This depth will also help shield Bud Black's project pitcher for 2014 - Brad Boxberger. Boxberger is a little bit like the departed Brad Brach - a minor league closer without the gas to close out MLB games. Box is a strikeout pitcher with a deceptive delivery and a plus-changeup. His control has been his Achilles heel so far, but he's set to get his first extended taste of the big-leagues in 2014. His ceiling is probably an eventual setup man.
KNOCKING ON THE DOOR
With their much-talked-about pitching depth, the Padres have a stable of pitchers starting 2014 in the minors or in recovery from injury. The aforementioned Tommy John survivors will probably not be ready for MLB service at the start of the season, but to assess the team's pitching talent I'll plug them in where they would fit on the depth chart when they are healthy. Keep in mind that even after they are healthy, the team will want to limit their innings in an effort to protect their ginger arms.
1. Cory Luebke - the best combination of big-league success and high upside in the whole organization. The team wants him in as soon as he's ready, but not before.
2. Casey Kelly - once a top pitching prospect, he's still a high upside piece with advanced big league offerings.
3. Joe Wieland - another guy at the top of the depth chart by virtue of already having big league starts under his belt.
4. Robbie Erlin - probably the first guy who will get the call-up if somebody gets hurt at the start of the season. He pitched well down the stretch after some rough initial starts. There is a chance Bud Black also uses him as a swingman out of the bullpen to improve his two-strike offerings a la Cory Luebke.
5. Burch Smith - everyone knows his stuff is MLB-ready, but ideally you want a little more seasoning of his secondary offerings. If he doesn't show improvement in his curveball and changeup there is a good chance he dumps one of those pitches and moves to the bullpen.
6. Matt Andriese - big arm, good frame, mixed results in 2013. Has about 120 innings in the upper-minors, so I'm sure they'd still like to see a little more before he gets a shot.
7. Matt Wisler - probably on the best kept secrets in the pitching prospect universe. He's very young and his 2013 saw his stock shoot way up. He will likely be a September call-up.
8. Keyvius Sampson - probably won't get a shot in 2014 unless his curveball improves. Otherwise he is likely to get a ticket to the bullpen.
1. Robbie Erlin - like I said, I think Budbot will be tempted to give him a bullpen look so he can develop against major league hitters. He doesn't have anything left to prove in the minors.
2. Kevin Quackenbush - hard to ignore his minor league k/9 and track record as a closer, but he is not on the current 40-man.
3. Keyvius Sampson - over 250 innings in the upper minors, including a demotion to AA. The clock is ticking on Sampson as a starter, but his great changeup could be useful as a bullpen weapon.
4. Burch Smith - it will be interesting to see whether or not they handle Smith as a starter or a reliever.
5. Donn Roach - his sinker was really working in 2012, but his performance suffered in 2013 in front of a poor infield defense. His sinker has been called the best in all of the minor leagues, which makes him a good candidate to jump from AA to a big league bullpen.
8. WHAT IS THIS, TREVOR HOFFMAN IS COMING IN TO PITCH!!! #ifMLBwasWWE