All-Star Week may be a relaxing midseason respite for most players, but for front offices, it’s business as usual. For the Padres, it may be a high-stakes one, as they’re reportedly closing in on a long-term deal with their best starting pitcher, Joe Musgrove. Without a deal, he hits free agency for the first time in his career, and there’s not much that teams like less than being drawn into a bidding war over their ace.
The starting pitchers the Padres have acquired over the last few years have mixed in many lows with their highs, but Musgrove has been rock-solid in mustard-and-brown, putting up a 2.90 ERA, a 3.48 FIP, and a hair under six WAR in 47 starts since coming over from the Pirates. During last season’s late-year debacle that saw San Diego in desperate enough straits to sign Jake Arrieta as a free agent and throw him into the rotation, Musgrove was a rare example of solidity, with only one truly awful start in the last month of the season. While he’s lost some strikeouts from 2021, he’s also adieu to some of the walks — not an unpleasant tradeoff, given that he ranks fifth among qualifying starters in average exit velocity at 86.7 mph.
Fewer walks and strikeouts have allowed Musgrove to get through innings slightly more efficient. As a result, he’s averaged almost a full inning per start more than last year while throwing just three more pitches per outing. Getting through the sixth more often has resulted in his quality start percentage shooting up from 48% to 88%; Among MLB qualifiers, only Framber Valdez has racked up a higher rate. Musgrove’s five-inning loss to the Rockies last Wednesday was the first time he failed to finish six innings this season. This durability and consistency are crucial to the Padres, given their experience last season when they tried to keep the rotation’s inning count low in the early going, resulting in an exhausted bullpen breaking down by July.
With the trade deadline fast approaching, getting some certainty about Musgrove’s future with the club has quite a bit of value. The Padres seem likely to add a bat, and getting a better idea of how many pitchers they’ll need to replace over the next few years should provide some guidance on which prospects they can afford to give up. Sean Manaea and Mike Clevinger are also free agents after this season, and Blake Snell and Yu Darvish will be after 2023, so Musgrove inked for most of the rest of the decade takes at least one problem off their plate.
So, what kind of deal is Musgrove likely looking at? Let’s fire up ZiPS and run him through the mathematical wringer.
ZiPS Projection – Joe Musgrove
Musgrove is a legitimate No. 1 starter, but he’s certainly not going to be in Gerrit Cole territory north of $300 million unless there’s a big-spending team out there with a very divergent opinion. ZiPS suggests five years, $129 million, or six years, $149 million, as reasonable numbers for both sides. That’s not in line, though, with recent contracts such as Darvish’s 6/126 or Zack Wheeler’s 5/118 when you consider inflation since they signed their deals.
Letting Musgrove hit free agency, even with the intention to beat other offers, would be a perilous play. The starting pitchers are potentially available this winter are not a star-studded cavalcade.
ZiPS Projects for Free Agent Pitchers
Musgrove may not be elite, but his combination of relative youth, outstanding performance, and no recent giant injury red flags make him a better long-term bet, at least in the opinion of ZiPS, than any other starting pitcher available. Aaron Nola, who can theoretically be a free agent, edges out Musgrove in the projects at 17.0 WAR over the next five seasons. But the idea that the Phillies would choose to take Nola’s $4.5 million buyout rather than the $16 million club option, short of anything dramatic happening over the next two months, is an absolutely ludicrous notion.
2023 ZiPS Projects – San Diego Starting Pitchers
While ZiPS still sees the Padres as deep in relatively plausible back-of-the-rotation options, a starting five built only on players the Padres have under contract for 2023 is not particularly exciting (I’ve intentionally left off Dinelson Lamet as I think he’s a reliever now). They’d be missing a top-of-the-rotation arm and an innings-eater, and Musgrove is both in one package. It seems unlikely that, if San Diego lost Musgrove and Manaea and Clevinger, it would actually go into the 2023 season with this exact group of pitchers. But patching together a rotation to make the Dodgers feel any discomfort would be a tall order in a winter when the team really needs to repair some holes in the offense. Musgrove is unlikely to finish his career with a speech at a podium in upstate New York, but he’s the right pitcher at the right time for the Padres, who are right to court aggressively a pitcher whose loss might throw their 2023 plans into disarray.