The Padres starting rotation is incomplete to say the least. The prospects and potential contributors are plentiful. But, the team’s long-term success depends on developing young arms into big league producers, and keeping their pitchers healthy.
Three starting pitchers on the Padres 40-man roster are currently trying to overcome significant health hurdles: Garret Richards, Dinelson Lamet and Anderson Espinoza. All three underwent Tommy John surgery within the last two years, but they are at completely different stages in their respective careers. Through production or promise, each has shown signs of being able to meaningfully contribute to a legitimate big league starting rotation.
The 26-year-old Dominican showed a lot of promise in his first major league action. His 10.94 K/9 as a rookie starter is the highest mark since Mark Prior recorded 11.34 K/9 in 2002 (min 100 IP).
Lamet worked off a hard fastball (95.2 mph in 2017) and tight slider. Heading into 2018, he looked to the Padres best young starting candidate before a torn UCL shut him down during Spring Training. By all accounts his recovery from Tommy John surgery is going well and he should return to action this season. With so many left-handed starting options—Mackezie Gore, Adrian Morejon, Logan Allen, Eric Lauer, Joey Lucchesi, Matt Strahm, etc—it’s important that Lamet, as a righty, comes back strong.
The former Angel has a longer track record than Lamet, both in terms of injury and performance. In 75 starts from 2013-2015, he amassed 8.5 WAR while recording a 3.37 FIP. Since then he’s only 138.2 IP across 28 starts. His 2.7 WAR, 9.61 K/9 and 3.59 FIP all speak to a player who produces when on the field. But, that’s the catch: Richards was limited to only 6 games in both 2016 and 2017 due to a damaged UCL—opting for rehab, not surgery—and biceps nerve irritation, respectively. After 16 starts in 2018, his season was again cut short for arm issues. This time, it was UCL damage requiring Tommy John surgery in July.
When healthy, Richards offers a heavy fastball (96.2 mph career) and excellent slider. He mixes in a solid curve (5.6% use career) and occasionally throws a decent changeup (1.6% use career). The Padres gambled that a 2-year, $15M deal will pay off with a healthy 2020 campaign where he can provide veteran leadership to what should be a young, talented staff.
Espinoza was a top-20 prospect with Mackenzie Gore-esque hype when the Padres acquired him for Drew Pomeranz in 2016. He was prized for a mid-to-upper 90s fastball with movement, and the potential for two more solid pitches in a wicked changeup and developing curveball.
After impressing as the starting pitcher in the Padres first On Deck Game against the Texas Rangers top prospects, Espinoza entered 2017 with hopes of moving rapidly through the minors. But, arm issues plagued the teenager and he never saw in-game action before undergoing Tommy John surgery in July 2017. He missed all of 2018, but has already thrown bullpens this Spring and could join Gore and Luis Patino in a filthy Lake Elsinore rotation this season.
Reasons for Optimism
Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) reconstruction has come a long way in baseball since it was first performed on Dodger Tommy John in 1974. It has become routine for pitchers to make successful comebacks.
The Padres need only look at prospect Chris Paddack for evidence. In 2016, the righty had 71 strikeouts against 5 walks in 42.1 IP at Single-A before requiring mid-Summer Tommy John surgery. He missed all of 2017 but returned in 2018 with 83 strikeouts against 4 walks in 52.1 IP at Advanced-A before a promotion to Double-A. Video game numbers before, video game numbers after.
San Diego-native Stephen Strasburg is another example. He went under the knife in September of his 2010 rookie campaign. Though he has lost time to all manner of injuries (including elbow and shoulder issues), Strasburg has still managed to be an elite starting pitcher. Since he returned from Tommy John surgery in 2011, he ranks 10th among starters in WAR (28.2), 8th in K/9 (10.47) and 7th in FIP (2.96).
Reasons for Doubt
Outside of Chris Paddack, the Padres have a poor record of Tommy John surgeries. The team has lost young pitchers like Corey Luebke and missed on veteran flyers like Josh Johnson.
Luebke was excellent as a rookie in 2011 with 2.7 WAR, a 2.93 FIP and 9.92 K/9. Sadly, he underwent Tommy John surgery in 2012 and 2014. After 5 starts in 2012, he never pitched for the Padres again. The lefty 8.2 innings for the Pirates in 2016 before finally hanging it up in 2017.
The Padres signed Josh Johnson during the 2013-2014 offseason. When healthy he was one of the best pitchers in the game, posting 18 WAR in only 115 starts from 2008 to 2012. Unfortunately, the big righty suffered an arm injury in his first Spring Training as a Padre. When rehab failed, he underwent the second Tommy John surgery of his career—first was in 2007—and lost all of 2014 and 2015. After one rehab appearance in Lake Elsinore in late 2015, Johnson was back in the operating room for a third UCL reconstruction. All in all, Johnson faced one batter (at Advanced-A) in his entire Padres career.
Only Time will Tell
Is Anderson Espinoza the next Chris Paddack? Is Garrett Richards the next Josh Johnson? 2019 should offer a lot of answers.
But, Padres fans can take solace that the organization boasts a farm system that, for the first time, should be able to weather the injury bug.
What do you think? How valuable can/will Lamet, Richards and Espinoza be to the Padres?
Which pitcher are you most excited to see bounce back from Tommy John?
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