We’re 20 games into the MLB season. As far as the pitching staff is concerned, everyone is pretty much who we thought they would be. That’s not a good thing. While the bullpen is a strength, and we’ve had some quality starts at the front of the rotation, the back of the rotation has been a shaky mess. Early season results can be subject to small sample size overreactions, but given that we’ve essentially turned the rotation over four times, we can form some opinions and prognosticate on what options may be considered at this juncture.
- Clayton Richard has been good at times, and decent at times, but he’s steady and reliable. You can pencil him in to give you five or more innings of work, and you can expect that he’ll probably give up about four runs in that time. That isn’t great, but at least he’ll punch the clock and do his job, which is sadly more than we can expect from some of the guys in the next list. This is what is expected of him, and if nothing else he’s a bulldog who will keep the kids in check and won’t back down when the team gets challenged by some jerks.
- Tyson Ross is looking a lot like 2013-2015 Tyson Ross. He’s limiting the walks, racking up the K’s, and minimizing the damage when things go slightly awry. The decision to non-tender him at the end of the 2016 season turned out to be the right choice, as his MLB return with the Rangers last year was premature and unsuccessful. With an offseason to return to health, we have a solid starter in the middle of our rotation, for which we are grateful.
- Joey Lucchesi has hit the ground running. A shaky debut is understandable for a rookie who flew up the minor league rungs, but he’s been nothing short of outstanding since then. The league will surely adjust, as the book on his delivery and repertoire gets published by the advance scouts. While he’s unlikely to dominate as he has in his last two starts, his ability to locate his fastball on both sides of the plate and keep the breaking stuff down at the bottom of the zone give him the stuff and the command to succeed as a Major League starter. His preparation and approach give him unflappable confidence that should carry him through the rough starts. His audition may have earned him a full-time gig.
- The bullpen has been outstanding. Brad Hand shook off his early rough outings. Craig Stammen is as reliable as they come. Jordan Lyles transformed from an ugly Spring Training duckling into a suddenly reliable back-end reliever. Kirby Yates picked up where he left off last year, and it looks like he’ll come back from the DL soon. Adam Cimber grabbed the brass ring and has been one of baseball’s best surprises. Robbie Erlin has emerged as a solid swingman, and still might evolve into a rotation option. Kazuhisa Makita and Phil Maton are prone to the rough outing but overall have been as expected. Buddy Baumann, Kyle McGrath, Colten Brewer, and Tyler Webb look like they’ll log some frequent flyer miles on the El Paso Shuttle, but it’s not a bad group for the role. The issue with the group as a whole is that they’ve been forced into long action way too often. Which brings us to...
- Bryan Mitchell has... not been good. Depending on the stat you choose, he’s one of the 6-8 worst pitchers in baseball with 10+ innings pitched. You see the late life on the mid-90’s fastball, you see the nasty bite on his curveball, but if he can’t command them, he’ll never be effective. His K/BB rate in AAA the last two years, where he was used as a starter, lingered around an excellent 5.0, while his struggles during his MLB time was attributed to an unfamiliar bullpen role and limited opportunities. The presumption was that a defined role and a bit of a long leash would allow him to settle in to the kind of performance he presented while with AAA Scranton. That simply hasn’t been the case so far, as his BB/9 has skyrocketed to 7.78 this year, and his K-rate has plummeted. He’s had trouble finding the strike zone, and when he does, the ball is elevated over the middle of the plate, perfect for hard contact. During his last start, Mark Grant described how he’s been working with pitching coach Darren Balsley to reduce his rotation away from the plate before moving forward, a move to simplify his delivery, improve his command, and make his pitches appear more similar to the hitter. If the argument is that he’s working through some mechanical tweaks, maybe he deserves some leash still, but it’s hard to watch a guy struggle to get through an inning, especially knowing that the bullpen is thin.
- Luis Perdomo has been better than Bryan Mitchell according to advanced metrics, but he’s been just as ugly according to the eye test. During Spring Training, Andy Green was openly critical of his propensity for nibbling the edges of the zone and issuing too many walks. Maybe a more aggressive approach is leading to more contact, and as a result his groundball rate has gone from near-MLB-best to simply average. Somehow he’s walking more batters, striking out more batters, but also inducing so much hard contact that more than half of the balls put in play have gone for hits. An improved infield defense should have the opposite result for an extreme groundballer, but that doesn’t apply when suddenly a bunch of last year’s ground balls are this year’s line drives. Whatever he’s working on, it’s not currently effective against MLB pitching, so he might need some time in the minors to work through this funk.
What are the options?
Let’s say that you’re AJ Preller, and you’ve decided that one or both of Perdomo and Mitchell need to leave the rotation. What do you do with them, and who takes their spots in the rotation?
For Perdomo, the decision is fairly clear: option him to a minor league roster. He still has three option seasons, so the team can send him down any time they wish. When he was selected in the Rule 5 draft before the 2016 season, it was assumed that he would be optioned and spend the 2017 season in the minors, but his improvement at the end of the season and a dearth of other rotation candidates put him back into the Padres’ starting five for 2017, but maybe that wasn’t the best thing for his long-term development. Rumors of attitude and work ethic issues last spring weren’t around this spring, but whatever changes they asked of him are only making him worse. Time in El Paso or San Antonio or even Lake Elsinore might serve him well, and he’ll only be a phone call away once he gets back on track.
Mitchell’s case is more precarious. His option seasons were exercised while he was in the Yankees organization, so he would need to clear waivers if the team wanted to assign him to a minor league roster. He could be moved to a bullpen role, but he struggled mightily as a reliever for the Yankees. The unfortunate reality here is that the team will probably keep running him out there and give him a frustratingly long leash to tap into the talent that the scouts used to talk Preller into acquiring him in the first place. It’s a shame that we’re talking about this now, when we really should be wishing him a happy birthday, but MLB baseball is business, and losing to the Dodgers sucks.
As for who would back-fill their roles, here’s the landscape as I see it:
- On the active roster, Jordan Lyles or Robbie Erlin could be seen as rotation candidates. Lyles has suddenly excelled in his bullpen role, while he was dreadful in his starts last season and this spring. Erlin struggled mightily in his spot start last week, and he isn’t stretched out to a starter’s ~100-pitch workload, but he’s probably the best option on the roster. Still, neither one looks ready for the role right now.
- Matt Strahm is on the 10-day DL and on a rehab assignment in San Antonio. He looked pretty good this spring and was a rotation candidate, but he’s only up to 45 pitches per outing right now, targeted for 60 in his next rehab start. He’s weeks away.
- Walker Lockett and Miguel Diaz are the other starter candidates on the 40-man roster. Lockett has been shelled so far this season in AAA, and Diaz was sent down specifically to work on development as Perdomo arguably should have been last year. Either could be called up in a pinch, but neither should be considered a realistic candidate.
- Eric Lauer has been really good so far this year in El Paso, and people are calling for him to follow Lucchesi into the rotation, but it’s probably too early to push him up. Cal Quantrill is a step behind Lauer at this point. Jacob Nix and the rest of the prospect arms are farther down the line. Lauer might get a nod, but he was considered to be well behind Lucchesi in regards to his readiness for MLB action.
- Kyle Lloyd, Brett Kennedy, and Chris Huffman are all working in El Paso and would be the best candidates to call up for fill-in duty, but none of them have the stuff or the command to be competent MLB starters.
If Mitchell and/or Perdomo are removed from the rotation, this team might be looking for help from the waiver wire or from the free agents out there still looking for work. We’ve seen how that went in the past with guys like Paul Clemens, Jarred Cosart, and Dillon Overton. There’s a reason why guys get placed on waivers (see: Mitchell, Bryan), and there’s a reason why the free agents are out there still looking for work, but unless Mitchell and Perdomo can start generating outs on a regular basis, we may be fishing those waters soon and often.