Arguably one of the most constantly shape-shifting question marks of the off-season has been the Padres' big five. With the amount of inconsistencies over the past 2 years, in addition to some gains, losses, and movements around the roster, it's tough to say where the performance and final shape of the 2016 starting rotation will be.
As a narrative, the starting five pitchers for the Padres will be a curious one to follow. You can find a fantastic outline of the plot, setting, and character of that narrative in SD Hat Guy's preview into the 2016 Padres' "Stories to follow". You'll also want to catch up on the other end of the pitching puzzle with roydjt's bullpen writeup.
The Friars rotation is coming off one of the coldest seasons in a while. Usually boasted as the strong section of the team, they were ranked low with a collective 4.09 ERA. To truly outline how the form of the rotation will appear by Opening Day and beyond, we have to look at the pieces that are making up most of the shape so far.
The main crew
One of the most heavily speculated value pieces in the off-season has been cemented into the starting rotation as "the guy". Maybe not an ace in the most strict sense of the title, but somebody you're going to feel comfortable starting on Opening Day against your division rival at home, which he will be. A solid, leading starter.
Ross has thrown just about 11 innings this Spring Training stretch and hasn't conveyed anything that would translate into hype. His last two games weren't exciting to watch, and when given a chance at 5 consecutive innings he conceded 4 earned runs. Not indicative of what a regular season performance would be, but if we're getting the Tyson of Friar years past, we'll be getting another top-of-the-line starter who can push out 200~ innings with a hopeful sub-3 ERA.
If I'd pin anti-hype onto one arm in this rotation, it would probably be Shields. His ERA just about shot through the roof and his WHIP was up by a lot. Mostly due to the 33 home runs he gave up last season, unfortunately he gave up a good amount over his time in Arizona thus far, 6 in 16 innings pitched. Certainly not his best display for Spring Training, but all hope isn't gone. If he can keep things from getting out of hand while providing more of his guaranteed 200-inning seasons.
Shields was one of the folks spiking up that team ERA, and there's lots of room for improvement, but with 2,000+ innings piling onto that arm, this is a season that can immediately indicate a decline as early as the end of April. That can start to spell out whether or not his inconsistent performances or inspiring bounce-back will appeal to a different club by the end of the season.
Our lovable bearded mullet-toting camouflage-wearing duck-hunting monster-truck-loving starter has probably tightened the most crossed-fingers in the last few seasons. If there has been room for improvement in the work of our previous rotations, Cashner is probably making the most adjustments of them all.
Cashner's ERA ended at 4.34 by the end of 2015, and with a WHIP of 1.44 and a 200:165 hit-to-strikeout ratio, Cashner wasn't scaring anybody not wearing an SD on their jerseys. His most recent spring outing against the Angels ended in just 85 pitches after giving up six runs in a little over 3 innings.
2016 has been set up as a make-or-break year for Cash, and the solidity of the rotation as a whole. By taking up the #3 spot, he's very much so in the meat of the rotation. He has the form, he's receptive to making adjustments, and he seems genuinely invested in the San Diego Padres. There's a true ace leader in there somewhere, dying to burst out.
Filling in the rest
With Ian Kennedy and Odrisamer Despaigne out of the picture, there are two big spots ready to be filled. Luckily, the Padres had a decent selection from up-and-comers to possible bullpen-converters. Spring Training gave Andy Green and Darren Balsley the opportunity to mix, match, and experiment to fill out the rest of the pitching card for the 2016 season.
This was the pitching pile going into the spring:
Brandon Maurer was the first to be lined up and tested this spring. The results weren't pretty. He wasn't able to cut the mustard with the Mariners as a starter, he was converted into a pretty great bullpen guy for the Padres, and then he showed the same results as a "starter" in this year's Spring Training. In 7-innings pitched, he allowed a whopping 16 earned runs, 5 of them home runs. He decidedly won't have the stuff to start, but he's welcome to keep putting in good work in the 'pen.
Luis Perdomo, Carlos Villanueva aren't honest considerations for a starting spot either, but for different reasons. Both Perdomo and Villanueva are on different sides of their careers, with Perdomo ready to build up his MLB pitching resume, and Villanueva looking to bring his effectiveness as a relief pitcher over to the Friars. They'll both share spots out past the left-center fences of Petco Park.
Brandon Morrow will be taking his time returning to starting strength after showing a promising two starts of 33-innings, 23 K's, a 1.09 WHIP, and a sexy ERA of 2.73 in 2015. He's not guaranteed to return to the rotation, but if he can build up that shoulder strength and not catch the flu again, he could see a comfy spot as Mambo No. 5.
Robbie Erlin was looking hot this spring. With 12 innings pitched, he notched 9 K's, kept his ERA at 2.25 and his WHIP at 0.83, and did a great job at letting us all know he's ready to reach his potential. As a lefty with some good stuff, he'll find his way into making more major league appearances for the Pads whether that's in one of the open bullpen spots or at the tail end of a competitive rotation.
As a lefty without the good spring numbers and an inclination towards the 'pen, Pomeranz is looking to be in the same boat as Erlin, or will, at least, be treading the same waters.
Though Colin Rea wants to shape up and be thrown into the mix for the 2016 major league season, his outlook is still shaky. With unimpressive numbers this spring during a time where auditions matter, he's still looking kinda low-end. He's surviving in the major league scene, but not putting up anything that would have somebody declaring that he's a bona fide starter.