Padres Bet There’s Magic in This Mike; He Ain’t an Ace, but Hey, He’s All Right

Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

They say you should never go to the grocery store hungry. If you do, you could end up like the Padres: A cart full of shortstops, eye-catching extensions for key players like Yu Darvish and Robert Suarez, and even a couple fun veteran DH types from the end caps to snack on during the drive home. Then you get home, unload the car, and realize you forgot something essential like bread, or coffee, or the entire back half of a starting rotation.

So you have to go back to the store and pick up a Michael Wacha before spring training:

The details of those options became clear this morning:

This season, the Padres will start the year with the same excellent front three as in 2022: Darvish, Blake Snell, and Joe Musgrove. But the rest of the rotation is getting a makeover. Only seven Padres pitchers made multiple starts last season, tied with Colorado and Seattle for the lowest number in baseball. Despite not needing much depth, however, the back half of San Diego’s rotation broke under the strain at the worst possible time. In three postseason appearances, Mike Clevinger and Sean Manaea combined to record 12 outs and allow 13 runs.

Those two left via free agency, while MacKenzie Gore went to Washington in the Juan Soto trade. I doubt very much that the Padres regret any of those decisions. But they did leave the team in need of back-end rotation depth. Before the Wacha signing, starters no. 4 and 5 were slated to be Nick Martinez and Seth Lugo. I’d take either one of them in my bullpen any day. But the rotation?

Martinez and Lugo, SP vs. RP
Martinez* IP K% BB% ERA FIP Opp. wOBA
As Starter 52 1/3 20.4 11.7 4.30 5.16 .359
As Reliever 54 22.0 6.4 2.67 3.72 .268
Lugo IP K% BB% ERA FIP Opp. wOBA
As Starter 194 2/3 20.8 6.3 4.35 4.28 .326
As Reliever 300 27.6 6.9 2.91 3.21 .263
*2022 only

Neither Lugo nor Martinez has been terrible out of the rotation, but they’ve both been very good as relievers. Martinez in particular was astonishingly good in the playoffs, and over multiple innings. Three of his seven appearances lasted at least two innings and 30 pitches. That kind of multi-inning effectiveness could be a difference-maker down the stretch. But he was only pedestrian in the rotation.

Still, the Padres gave both pitchers high seven-figure salaries this offseason, on contracts replete with player options. No doubt there’s pressure on the club to at least give Martinez and Lugo a chance to fail as starters before transitioning to relief. So even with Wacha under contract, the Padres will at least start the season with a six-man rotation.

San Diego’s rotation depth beyond Wacha, Martinez, and Lugo warrants a mention because of the absolutely titanic “Hey, it’s that guy!” capacity down the pecking order. Julio Teheran, Anderson Espinoza, and Wilmer Font got non-roster invites. Wilmer Font!

Brent Honeywell — who’ll somehow turn 28 the day after Opening Day — is on San Diego’s 40-man roster. So is former top-10 selection and pickoff specialist Ryan Weathers. Hey, I’d been looking all over for Jay Groome. And they’ll pry the Adrian Morejon hype from my cold, dead knuckles. I know it feels like he’s been around forever, but he’s only pitched 66 regular season innings in the majors and he’s younger than Spencer Strider. I still believe! Hallelujah!

But back to Wacha, the purported subject of this article. The Padres finally got one over on the Dodgers last year, and L.A. looks vulnerable for the first time since the Padres got good again. They’ll finally be able to play Soto and Fernando Tatis Jr. together in 2023, and they just made one of the biggest free agent signings of the offseason in Xander Bogaerts. At the same time, the clock is ticking. Darvish is at the top of his game now but isn’t getting any younger. Snell will be a free agent at season’s end, and Manny Machado could opt out. The proverbial iron is hot, which makes 2023 a pretty lousy time to bet on this being the year Lugo and Morejon finally make it stick in a major league rotation. At least without a backup plan.

After a spectacular start to his career, Wacha spent most of his late 20s either hurt or lost or worse, pitching for the Mets. Wacha was never exactly Nolan Ryan in his youth, but in 2022, he rebuilt himself as a three-fastballs-and-location finesse pitcher. Wacha ramped up his sinker usage, got a little more movement on his cutter, and traded a little bit of whiff rate and strikeout rate (about two percentage points’ worth of reduction in each, from 2021 to 2022) for a lot of weak contact.

In 2021, Wacha had the fifth-highest LD% out of 115 starters with at least 100 innings pitched. Not good. In 2022, he was middle of the pack. His HardHit% dropped from 43% to 35.4%; of the 228 pitchers on Baseball Savant’s leaderboard, only 18 had a bigger improvement in that direction.

There are nevertheless fluky indicators in Wacha’s 2022 season. His FIP was eight-tenths of a run higher than his ERA, though it was also nearly six-tenths of a run lower than his ERA in 2021. He posted his highest strand rate and lowest BABIP and HR/FB% since leaving St. Louis, but those numbers would legitimately be buoyed by allowing less hard contact. Wacha was probably neither as good as his 3.32 ERA in 2022 suggested, nor as bad as his 5.05 ERA in 2021 would make you think.

Barring some unexpected evolution to his game, Wacha won’t be an impact pitcher in 2023, or in the other potential years of this deal. He probably doesn’t solve San Diego’s need for a no. 4 starter who can turn a lineup over in the playoffs. (Though the Phillies made the World Series and didn’t have that either, so maybe it’s not actually a need.) In his only postseason appearance since leaving the Cardinals — one ALDS relief appearance for the Rays in 2021 — he posted an ERA of 20.25, which is actually lower than either Clevinger or Manaea could manager last postseason.

But this signing really isn’t about the playoffs, when a team with San Diego’s frontline starters and prodigious relief depth can work its way through one bullpen game a series. Wacha is a relatively safe bet to give San Diego somewhere around 20 to 25 starts and 100 to 120 innings of league-average pitching, and at a very reasonable price. He’s not going to beat himself. He’s not going to walk everybody. And in front of this infield, with this bullpen, that should be enough to win more often than not. That’s really the dictionary definition of a back-end starter’s job. And Wacha’s presence lifts a huge amount of pressure from Lugo, Martinez, and the kids.





Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

38 Comments
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Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago

You’re better than Springsteen references. C’mon now.

Medium Blue Lifter Puller
1 year ago

Registered an account to disagree. Absolutely flawless execution on this one.

Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago

Are you from Minnesota, by chance?

nowionlywantatriumphmember
1 year ago

Hey, but it’s alright with me

CC AFCmember
1 year ago

Right? Man, talk about dated references

CC AFCmember
1 year ago
Reply to  CC AFC

I see that the joke went over some heads

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

Thunder Road references are never going to go out of style. Same with Badlands.

Mario Mendozamember
1 year ago

the irony posting this with a Beatles reference moniker is not lost

Last edited 1 year ago by Mario Mendoza
Ivan_Grushenkomember
1 year ago
Reply to  Mario Mendoza

Beatles were a once in a century phenomenon. There are no comparable musical figures in the last 100 years with that type of impact. Springsteen had a much narrower following, similar to Neil Young or SD Burman. If the Beatles were Babe Ruth or Willie Mays, Springsteen was more Juan Marichal or Shigeo Nagashima.

Lanidrac
1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Elvis?

Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
Reply to  Mario Mendoza

(the irony was the point)

Sabometrics
1 year ago

Wasted summers praying in vain for starting pitcher to rise from this farm system.

fjtorres
1 year ago
Reply to  Sabometrics

Instead the farm guys rise elsewhere.

Last edited 1 year ago by fjtorres
Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
Reply to  Sabometrics

*Wasting summers praying in vain for a pitcher to raise the farm’s dreams

Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago

Well, now I’m no LOOGY; that’s understood
All the deception I got, Boss, is beneath this dirty glove
There’s a chance if I can grease the ball now
Well now, Boss, I can get him OUT

Ivan_Grushenkomember
1 year ago

I was kinda surprised by it also. I didn’t think very many young people cared about him enough to know lyrical details

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

Typically, knowledge of Springsteen comes with New Jersey ties. If you’re from New Jersey, you probably know more about Springsteen than a music historian. As your familiarity with New Jersey increases—maybe you lived there, or corporate HQ was there, or you had a roommate from there—so too does your knowledge of The Boss. Overlapping ties to people from New Jersey are additive, as is exposure to those people and over time. If you don’t know anyone from NJ, second degree distance will help but at that point you probably are only getting into “knowing that Born in the USA is not a patriotic song” territory.

In any case, that specific Springsteen era with Born to Run and The River was the absolute height of his creative powers, so it totally makes sense the kids don’t know about him. The later stuff isn’t as good. (Me saying that outs me as not being from NJ). But then again we are talking about some of the best rock songs of all time so it’s probably unfair to expect him to keep cranking out Thunder Road type hits every three years.

Last edited 1 year ago by sadtrombone
Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

He doesn’t even have the best song of the 70’s with River in the title; that goes to Neil Young.

(Edited to reflect that Everybody Knows This is Nowhere came out in mid ’69. But I still stand by it.)

And anyway, John Cafferty did Springsteen better than Springsteen (Eddie, I still Cruise for you!).

sadtrombonemember
1 year ago

The River was pitched just right, where nostalgia turns to horror into acceptance. After that song it was one long slippery slope downward into nonsense and maudlin tunes. Although one could say he was already there with Hungry Heart which is just bizarre.

In any case, you’re wrong about the best song with River in the title from the 1970s. That would be Joni Mitchell’s “The River”, which is a more subtle mourning than Springsteen’s song.

Last edited 1 year ago by sadtrombone
Mean Mr. Mustard
1 year ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

Since Down By the River was ’69, I’ll agree with your assertion of Joni Mitchell.

In any event, as much as Springsteen compels me to roll my eyes, he’s had an interesting career in that he’s faded in and out of popular consciousness as his creativity has waxed and waned. The ’70’s was a long slide that led into 1984’s ski jump, then another fade until Philadelphia, then another until Tom Joad. No idea if yet another comeback has happened; I stopped paying attention to music media around then.

Original Greaser Bob
1 year ago

Springsteen and TLR should go on a road trip.