The Padres have been without lefty Blake Snell all season due to an adductor strain, but the 2018 AL Cy Young winner is set to make his 2022 debut on Wednesday, manager Ryan Christenson told reporters acting yesterday (Twitter link via Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune). San Diego will roll out Mike ClevingerSnell and Yu Darvish this Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, respectively. Snell’s return will temporarily push young lefty MacKenzie Gore into the bullpen, though it seems that’ll simply amount to skipping his turn in the rotation just once before he’s considered for another start. The Friars are lined up for a daunting stretch of 40 games in 42 days, Acee points out.
Snell’s return ought to provide a boost to a San Diego staff that’s already been among the better units in the game. Padres starters are tied with the Twins for the game’s ninth-best ERA at 3.50, which is a dead-on match for their seventh-ranked 3.50 FIP. They’re also fourth in MLB with a 25% strikeout rate and have been a respectable, albeit middle-of-the-pack group in terms of walk rate, ranking 15th with a 7.8% mark.
Snell’s first season in San Diego didn’t go as hoped. The now-29-year-old southpaw turned in a 4.20 ERA over the life of 128 2/3 innings and also had a couple of stints on the injured list — including a late-September stay for the same adductor issue that plagued him earlier this year.
However, while Snell’s composite numbers may not stand out, the lefty was back to his Cy Young-caliber form down the stretch in 2021. Snell scrapped his once-dominant changeup — which had been getting hammered last year — on Aug. 3 and ramped up his usage of sliders and four-seamers. The result was a dominant 1.83 ERA and 39.4% strikeout rate with a solid 8.5% walk rate — all marks that dwarfed his numbers through the end of July (5.44 ERA, 27.3% strikeout rate, 14.3% walk rate). If that’s the version of Snell the Padres welcome back this week, an already-strong rotation could develop into a powerhouse.
A short-term shift to the ‘pen for Gore may frustrate some fans after the former No. 3 overall pick has debuted with a 2.42 ERA, 26.4% strikeout rate and 8.5% walk rate through his first 26 innings, but it ostensibly appears to be little more than workload management. Gore pitched just 50 1/3 innings of actual game activity last year, struggling to the point that the Padres sent him to their Spring Training facility in mid-June to sort out his mechanics. He was out of games until the middle of August, when he returned to the Padres’ Rookie-ball affiliate and then worked his way back up to Double-A.
There’s been no issue for Gore thus far in 2022. Once lauded as the game’s top pitching prospect, the 23-year-old has made good on that billing both in Triple-A (five shutout innings, seven strikeouts, no walks) and in the Majors (2.42 ERA, 28-to-9 K/BB ratio in 26 frames). The Padres could take some steps to occasional measures such as this one to prevent too stark an innings increase, but so long as Gore continues to pitch with this level of effectiveness, it’ll be hard to keep him out of the rotation.
San Diego has been deploying a six-man rotation thus far, with Joe MusgroveDarvish, Sean ManaeaGore, Clevinger and offseason acquisition Nick Martinez all starting games. Acee tweeted Last week that the team “tentatively” planned to continue a six-man rotation following the return of Snell, who’d effectively push Martinez to the bullpen.
That’s notable in and of itself, as Martinez signed a surprising four-year, $25.5MM contract with the Padres this winter on the heels of an outstanding run in Japan. The former Rangers righty not only landed that unexpected guarantee but secured opt-out clauses after each year of the contract. That essentially allows him to become a free agent if he’s able to approximate his NPB excellence in MLB but gives him a hearty sum on which to fall back if he struggles in his return to North American ball. Martinez tossed 378 2/3 innings of 3.02 ERA ball in three seasons overseas, including a dominant 1.60 ERA with a 25% strikeout rate and 6.8% walk rate in 140 innings with the SoftBank Hawks last year.
So far in 2022, however, Martinez has had his share of tough outings. He’s pitched 30 2/3 innings with a respectable 4.40 ERA, but his 11.5% walk rate and 1.76 HR/9 mark are both well worse than the league average. He’s posted solid strikeout and ground-ball rates (23.1% and 46.4%, respectively), but he’ll need to curb the free passes and the long balls if he’s to fully establish himself.
Even if Martinez is bullpen-bound for the time being, that shouldn’t be expected to close the book on him as a starter. The Padres made a notable investment in him this winter even amid luxury-tax concerns, and it’s of course likely that other injuries on the pitching staff will pop up and give Martinez further opportunities to start some games. The number of times he takes the hill to start a game is certainly worth monitoring, though; Martinez’s 2023, 2024 and 2025 salaries would all increase by $1MM if he makes 20 starts.