Last week, I wrote about Eddie Butler and how Colorado’s volatile starting rotation could open the door for Butler, and fellow prospect Jonathan Gray, to contribute earlier than expected. That got me thinking about how Matthew Wisler is in a similar situation with the Padres, especially following the news that Cory Luebke will miss all of 2014.
Ian Kennedy, one of baseball’s most durable pitchers over the last several years, is assured a spot in the rotation, as are Andrew Cashner and Josh Johnson. Cashner finally managed to stay healthy for a full season last year, and was quite good in his 175 innings, finishing the season with a 3.09 earned run average and 1.13 walks plus hits per inning. The problem with Cashner is that he had thrown a total of 316.2 innings in his five previous professional seasons.
Johnson is pretty much the definition of an injury risk. Tommy John surgery in 2007, a month on the disabled list in 2010 with back pain, a 2011 season cut short by shoulder inflammation — then there’s last year, when he missed time with inflammation in his triceps before being shut down early yet again, this time with forearm tightness. Just four months ago, Johnson went back under the knife to have bone chips removed from his elbow. Like Cashner, Johnson cannot be confidently relied on to be a workhorse starter for the Padres in 2014.
With Luebke out for the year, and Casey Kelly still recovering from a Tommy John surgery of his own, the other two spots in the rotation will be filled by recent reclamation projects. Tyson Ross was a revelation last year with his tweaked mechanics and devastating slider, but his performance was so drastically different from anything he’d shown previously that it remains to be seen if he can repeat that level of production.
Soft-tossing lefty Eric Stults spent parts of six major-league seasons mired in obscurity, and was terrible in 2010 as a starter in Japan as well, scuffling to a 5.07 ERA in 21 starts. Much like with Ross, once Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley got his hands on Stults, he was instantly an above-average major league starter for the first time. In Stults’ case, it was even more unexpected, seeing as he throws about 87 mph and he was 32 years old when the Padres claimed him off waivers in 2012.
This is not to say that I don’t believe in Ross or Stults; to be honest, I think Ross is legit and Stults is at least good enough to benefit from his home park. The point is that, other than Kennedy, the Padres’ rotation consists of two pitchers with very high injury risk and two recent reclamation projects. Every team needs more than five starters in the long run, but the San Diego rotation has an especially high risk factor attached.
Behind those five, options get scarce. Robbie Erlin would probably get the first shot, as he’s the safe pick. Relatively polished and major-league ready, Erlin is a high-floor, low-ceiling guy who could plug a hole for a couple months if necessary. Beyond that, I don’t see Burch Smith rushing back to the majors after he face-planted in his chance last year. Joe Wieland has been pitching a bit following his recovery from Tommy John surgery, but I’d be shocked if San Diego doesn’t play it very safe with both him and Kelly.
Of everyone I’ve touched on so far, there are really only six viable options for the Padres’ rotation: Kennedy, Cashner, Johnson, Ross, Stults and Erlin. I didn’t exactly intend for this to turn into a dissertation on San Diego’s organizational depth, seeing as I’ve barely even mentioned the player this article is really about to this point, but here we are.
The one other viable option for the Padres is Wisler, arguably the top pitching prospect in a system loaded with pitching prospects. Wisler spent most of last season in Double-A, where he pitched to a 3.00 ERA, with 8.83 K/9 and 2.31 BB/9, in 20 starts. I saw him pitch in July, a road start at Tulsa, in which he was completely dominant. Wisler cruised for six innings, throwing just 71 pitches while allowing two hits and one walk, with six punchouts.
What I saw was an extremely polished pitcher for his age. Wisler’s delivery is very clean and consistent, and he has excellent command of his 93-95 mph fastball. His best secondary offering is a sharp, biting slider, though he also threw a curveball and change-up. The curve was the better of those two; it had nice late break to it when he (inconsistently) got on top of it, while the change appeared to be more of a show-me offering.
The major knock on Wisler is his struggle against left-handed hitters, which is completely justified, as his arsenal is best suited to get same-handed hitters out. In his minor-league career, he has a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 12.69 against righties, but just a 1.58 K/BB rate against lefties. Furthermore, six of the nine homers he’s surrendered have been to lefties, but honestly, it’s still outrageously impressive that he’s given up just nine long balls in 250 professional innings. Additionally, if he can develop either the curve or change into even an average major-league pitch, he should be able to improve his splits.
Wisler will almost certainly start the 2014 season in Triple-A to get some more seasoning, but he’s a No. 2 or No. 3 starter in the making and he could end up seeing substantial time in the majors this year. He’s likely seventh on the starting pitcher depth chart to start the season, but it’s a volatile group ahead of him, and with his upside, Wisler could climb the ranks in a hurry.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.