Padres are reminded of pitching lessons of 2021 as trade deadline draws closer


SAN DIEGO — At the 2021 trade deadline, the San Diego Padres sat 16 games above .500. They held a 5 1/2-game lead in pursuit of the National League’s second (and then-final) wild card. They fielded a roster that included five All-Stars.

And that afternoon, when right-hander Chris Paddack strained his left oblique during a bullpen session, they watched it all begin to crumble. Fernando Tatis Jr. would re-dislocate his left shoulder hours later, but Paddack’s injury — which occurred soon after the Padres balked at the price of trading for a starting pitcher — helped trigger the implosion of an entire unit.

After the trade deadline, the Padres opted for several bullpen games and gave starts to Jake Arrieta, Vince Velasquez and then-rookie Ryan Weathers. That trio combined for an 11.57 ERA. With veterans Joe Musgrove, Yu Darvish and Blake Snell attempting to prop up a shorthanded rotation, the pitching staff as a whole produced a 5.17 ERA. San Diego finished 18-38 and 11 games out of the postseason picture.

Wednesday, the Padres woke up with a 1 1/2-game lead over the New York Mets for the National League’s third wild card. They featured five newly selected All-Stars and an offense that has performed substantially better than the 2021 version. The San Diego rotation was fronted by Dylan Cease, who was acquired in March by a front office that absorbed lessons from multiple second-half meltdowns.

And hours later, the Padres absorbed a fourth consecutive defeat while continuing to grapple with their most glaring problem. Michael King threw well in a 2-0 loss to the pitching-rich Seattle Mariners, but the former reliever also moved six innings closer to an uncertain limit.

Before the game, San Diego optioned struggling rookie starter Adam Mazur to Triple A and recalled Logan Gillaspie to form a temporary nine-man bullpen ahead of the All-Star break. Around the same time, Musgrove played catch off a mound in preparation for a bullpen session around the middle of next week.

If Musgrove makes it there without any setbacks, it would be his first bullpen in more than a month. Musgrove was shut down in early June after the discovery of a bone bruise and bone spur in his throwing elbow. Now, he is aiming to return from the injured list the first or second week of August.

Regardless of whether such a plan comes to fruition, time will soon reveal the state of a post-deadline staff. The Padres might have needed additions weeks ago — Musgrove and Darvish have not pitched since late May, and the bullpen has an ERA above 5.00 in the same span — but a relative lack of supply and the weeks left on the clock remain obvious deterrents in mid-July. Under A.J. Preller, perhaps the most aggressive general manager in the sport, no one inside San Diego’s clubhouse feels a pressing need to lobby the front office the way Brandon Nimmo recently lobbied the Mets’ brass.

“A.J. knows what we need. I think we have a pretty good level of communication with him,” Musgrove said. “I don’t feel like anybody in here is going out there begging and pleading for players. … You can’t start asking and begging for things and then not get it and now the whole mindset of the clubhouse has changed. We’re preparing as if this is what we have and we’re moving forward, and anything we get from here on is an addition. We’re going to get myself back, we’re going to get (Xander Bogaerts) back, we’re going to get (Tatis) back. So, in a way, it feels like we’re winning the deadline already, having all these guys coming back and adding that power to an efficient lineup already, getting a few more good arms in there.”

Bogaerts, the veteran infielder, could return this weekend from a fractured shoulder. The Padres hope Tatis can return before September from a stress reaction in his right femur. Adding multiple good arms poses a more complicated task for a team that is reluctant to discuss top prospects Ethan Salas and Leodalis De Vries in trade talks (and no longer has much other premium talent to peddle).

The Padres are roughly $12 million from a luxury-tax threshold they do not plan on exceeding. They could gain a decent amount of financial flexibility to apply toward their pitching needs if Darvish, who is on the restricted list attending to a family matter, does not return this season. (Teams are not required to pay players on the restricted list. Before he went on it, Darvish was still owed about $7 million in 2024.) Club officials are hopeful that Darvish does return this year, but they and other Padres players do not know if he definitely will. Musgrove, who said he recently texted with Darvish, has sought to respect the privacy of a beloved teammate.

“Yeah, uncertain on where Darvish is going to be in a few months,” Musgrove said. “It’s hard to make a decision now.”

In the meantime, the Padres have regular decisions to make with at least one key pitcher. King will be carefully monitored through the end of his first full season as a major-league starter. Two years after fracturing his throwing elbow, he is up to an MLB-career-high 111 innings. (He tallied 104 2/3 last season with the New York Yankees.) San Diego’s four off days this month and the All-Star break allow the team to build in occasional additional rest for King. He received it Tuesday, following an off day, with Mazur starting instead.

Mazur surrendered five runs in 4 2/3 innings in an 8-3 loss to the Mariners. His big-league ERA, through seven outings, sits at 7.84. That he had been deemed the readiest starting pitching prospect from the farm system is more reason Preller must acquire rotation help by the end of the month. But the Padres also must prioritize the health of King, the headliner of their return for Juan Soto. So, they gave at least one more start to a rookie who clearly is not ready.

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Adam Mazur is in need of more minor-league development after struggling through his first seven starts with the Padres. (Jim McIsaac / Getty Images)

King perhaps can provide another 50 or so innings this season. The Padres do not have a set target. As he did with former reliever Seth Lugo last season, pitching coach Ruben Niebla has tracked King’s mechanics with the help of Hawk-Eye technology and sought to limit the number of “stressful” innings King throws in any start. King, meanwhile, has noticed that Lugo is now flourishing with the Kansas City Royals as a first-time All-Star.

“I think it’s a very good guideline to follow,” said King, who has pitched to a 3.41 ERA. (Lugo, who now leads all qualifying starters with a 2.21 ERA, produced a 3.57 mark last season.) “Just seeing a guy that I feel like has always had starter stuff, seeing the success as a full-time starter is reassuring.”

“Lugo did miss some starts (in 2023) with a calf (injury),” Niebla said. “So where it ends up, I don’t know. But paying attention to it, what we do know is that we need to get Michael (to stay) healthy and be at his best in September and October.”

Lugo ended last season with a career-high 146 1/3 innings. While there are no restrictions on Cease, one of the majors’ more durable starters over the past several years, the Padres may need a larger number from Matt Waldron. The rookie is up to 99 2/3 innings after totaling 133 2/3 last season between the majors and the minors. It could help that he has shouldered a starter’s workload throughout his professional career. It also could help that almost 40 percent of his pitches have been knuckleballs.

Still, the Padres will exercise some caution with a young major leaguer who has emerged as one of their more effective starters.

“He throws it hard,” Niebla said. “There’s some above 80. You throw a knuckleball above 80, it’s going to tax you. Absolutely.”

Less than three weeks before the trade deadline, the rotation has been propped up by Waldron, King and Cease, although Cease has struggled to the tune of a 5.88 ERA over his past 11 outings. Relief help remains an urgent need, but it could all become moot if the Padres do not acquire a starter. Two might be preferable. The lessons of 2021 continue to resonate.

(Photo of Michael King: Orlando Ramirez / USA Today)





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