Why the Padres’ next win-now move could be for another starting pitcher

Joe Musgrove stood at his locker on the penultimate day of the 2023 regular season, hours after his team was eliminated from playoff contention, and expressed regret about a series of events that began months earlier.

The veteran starter had not pitched in nine weeks. He had begun throwing again but, with the San Diego Padres’ official removal from the postseason picture, he would not pitch in either of their final two games. Shoulder capsule inflammation was the main culprit for his inactivity, yet Musgrove did not dismiss the idea of implicating himself.

“The injuries and stuff are going to happen throughout the course of your career, but I got to do a better job of just, like, being aware and making better decisions,” Musgrove said. “The weight on my toe, that’s a complete accident. But there’s no need to be f——g doing the f——g stupid thing I was doing in Triple A when I fall on my shoulder. That’s competitive, trying to make a play, but I need to be a better gauge of that. You know, running barefoot and getting burned. (Musgrove burned the bottom of his feet last April running on the artificial turf at Mexico City’s Estadio Alfredo Harp Helú.) Just little things that I could’ve changed that could’ve changed the course of a career.

“If I don’t fall on the shoulder, maybe the shoulder thing’s never an issue. If I don’t burn the feet, maybe my body has another week to get on this workload program. So, looking back at it, I was good when I was on the field, but I think I got to do a better job of managing some of the decisions that I made that ultimately cost me some games and cost the team some starts.”

It was a candid self-assessment from a clubhouse leader who recorded a 3.05 ERA before landing on the injured list. And it was a window into the kind of thinking that might have reinforced a decision made this past weekend.

Sunday, the Padres placed Musgrove on the 15-day injured list, citing elbow inflammation the right-hander attributed to triceps tendonitis. Musgrove, who had experienced the condition in the past, suggested he could have started Tuesday at Wrigley Field if absolutely needed. “Right now, if I push through it and then I’m missing the rest of the year, that kind of hurts everybody around here,” Musgrove added. “You got to put your own feelings aside for a minute and look at what’s best for the group.”

Musgrove said he intends to return as soon as his 15 days are up. Padres manager Mike Shildt told reporters in Chicago on Tuesday afternoon that is the team’s hope, as well. A couple of hours later, rookie right-hander Randy Vásquez started in place of Musgrove and did about as well as could have been expected, throwing 83 pitches over 4 1/3 innings while limiting the Cubs to one run. San Diego, after requiring four innings of relief in Monday’s win, got a go-ahead two-run home run from Jurickson Profar in the seventh before a taxed bullpen surrendered the lead and then a walk-off homer in the ninth to lose 3-2. The Padres still can feel good about their chances in Wednesday’s series finale with their best pitcher, Dylan Cease, on the mound.

How should they feel about their starting rotation moving forward?

Friday at Petco Park, Michael King will start against a Los Angeles Dodgers team that socked four homers off him in five innings last month. Matt Waldron is scheduled to take the mound Saturday coming off a career-worst performance. Opening Day starter Yu Darvish has operated on pitch counts in his first two starts since the fifth IL stint of his Padres tenure. (Darvish was shut down last September with a stress reaction in his right elbow but did not go on the IL as rosters had expanded.) It’s a bit frightening to think about where San Diego would be without Cease, who was acquired by president of baseball operations A.J. Preller on the final day of an abbreviated spring training.

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Dylan Cease has been a timely acquisition by Padres president of baseball operations A.J. Preller. (Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)

Cease has pitched to a 2.55 ERA, looking again like the Cy Young Award contender he was in 2022. Darvish has logged a 2.94 ERA, albeit in almost nine fewer innings; like Musgrove, the 37-year-old represents a prominent injury risk. The rest of the rotation has combined for a 5.30 ERA, and the unit’s overall 4.33 mark ranks 22nd in the majors. And when a Padres starter does not work into the sixth inning — this has been the case each of the past three games — outcomes like Tuesday’s are not unexpected. Closer Robert Suarez, who already has supplied two five-out saves, has a 0.59 ERA. The rest of the bullpen has a 4.49 ERA.

Musgrove, a 2022 All-Star, was exhibiting worrisome signs before he held the Cincinnati Reds to two runs in his most recent start. Then, on Sunday, he acknowledged he had worked through some triceps tendonitis in his “last couple” outings. He said the discomfort worsened to the point that, on Saturday, he opted to end a bullpen session after a handful of pitches.

He was asked about the balance between feeling 100 percent and navigating the wear-and-tear he has accrued as a veteran pitcher.

“My 100 percent now is lower than what I think most people’s 100 percent would be,” Musgrove said. “But I feel very confident working at 80 percent and feeling really good about my stuff and my ability to compete. So, yeah, as I’ve gotten a little bit older and more years and innings, I’ve carried a few little injuries that linger throughout the year, but nothing that’s severe enough … and that kind of gives me something to zero in and focus on and takes a little bit of the anxiety and stresses away from preparing for a start. So, I’m used to it. This doesn’t feel like anything out of the ordinary. Just a little bit too severe to kind of push through right now.”

Musgrove will miss at least one more turn in the rotation; the earliest he can come back is April 20 against the Atlanta Braves. Whenever he returns, the Padres could have a choice to make between continuing to carry Waldron or giving Vásquez a longer look. The former has received meager run support and, with a 5.87 ERA, has been roughly as inconsistent as his fluttering knuckleball. The latter tends to struggle with command but wields an array of big-league-caliber pitches; Vásquez showed promise Tuesday, striking out six batters and walking none. With limited experience in the majors, both pitchers will endure more growing pains.

Jhony Brito can be stretched out to start, but the long reliever has yet to develop much of a breaking pitch. The Padres view starters Adam Mazur and Ryan Bergert as two of their readiest prospects, although they still could be weeks, if not months, from reaching the majors. Another Double-A pitcher, 20-year-old Robby Snelling, might be a bit further away.

“They’re definitely on our radar,” Preller said in an interview Tuesday on 97.3 The Fan. “They’re guys we’re monitoring all the time, both for their development and then also their ability to help and progress, whether it’s at Triple A or the big leagues. … I think they’re on that track, and hopefully we’re having more of that conversation here in the next couple months.”

The upper levels of the farm system are not as deep as they were two months ago. Preller traded well-regarded pitching prospects Drew Thorpe and Jairo Iriarte as part of the deal for Cease. (Thorpe and Iriarte have 1.01 and 1.46 ERAs, respectively, for the Chicago White Sox’s Double-A club.) Given what Cease is providing, the cost has seemed justified.

Meanwhile, the Padres have fielded one of the majors’ most productive offenses this season. Yet they are 19-20, including 8-17 when they do not receive a quality start. It has been a flip from last season; in 2023, San Diego’s starting pitchers led the majors in ERA and buoyed the team’s faint playoff hopes until late September.

Now, if Preller does not address the rotation’s need for more depth, his starting pitching could end up sinking another postseason chase. It’s still early May, but the general manager has signaled urgency with his trades for Cease and defending batting champion Luis Arraez. The deal to acquire Arraez from Miami was especially nifty in that the Padres maintained flexibility below the luxury tax threshold. There are still intriguing pieces in the farm system. Perhaps Preller will soon re-express interest in Marlins left-hander Jesús Luzardo or other starters with modest salaries.

And maybe, with the trade deadline more than two months away, the Padres’ rotation will begin to stabilize internally and through eventual promotions from the minors. Maybe King will establish himself as a dependable mid-rotation starter. Maybe Musgrove and Darvish will stay on the mound all summer. The season’s first 39 games, however, indicate these are big ifs. Preller has already made two win-now moves since late in spring training — the kind of moves that might compel him to pursue at least one or two more.

(Top photo of Joe Musgrove: Denis Poroy / Getty Images)

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