The Padres need Joe Musgrove more than ever after ‘difficult’ offseason

PEORIA, Ariz. — Joe Musgrove is the embodiment of a hometown player, a San Diego-area native who welcomes both the benefits and the responsibilities that come with starring in the city where he was raised. The San Diego Padres traded for him three years ago amid an offseason of blockbuster acquisitions, and in exchange Musgrove has supplied the franchise’s first no-hitter, two indelible playoff performances, and what teammates and three different managers have described as unwavering leadership.

As well as anyone, Musgrove understands the void that was created three months ago, before a winter of payroll reductions and growing uncertainty. Peter Seidler died in November, leaving behind a legacy as a rare big-spending Padres owner.

“He did what everyone in San Diego wanted us to do for a long time,” Musgrove said. “And he started that journey off, and we’re going to do everything we can to finish it for him.”

That quest perhaps will start with Musgrove taking the mound in this major-league season’s opener on March 20 in Seoul, South Korea. Regardless of when he first pitches, the past few months brought a certain clarity: Without Seidler and multiple key members of last year’s pitching staff, the Padres need Musgrove more than ever.

Unlike a year ago, San Diego is considered a long shot for the World Series appearance Seidler spent hundreds of millions of dollars chasing. Most public projections struggle to see the 2024 Padres even contending for a wild-card berth. That is largely because Musgrove and Yu Darvish are now the team’s only established starting pitchers, Juan Soto was traded to the New York Yankees weeks after Seidler’s passing, and the front office so far has done virtually nothing to replace the star outfielder.

To beat projections, Musgrove must prove he is fully past the shoulder capsule inflammation that limited him to fewer than 100 innings last season. In the meantime, those around him agree that his voice remains a key to distancing the Padres from the crippling underperformance of 2023.

“I think we need to do a better job of identifying what our identity is as a team from the get-go of spring training,” Musgrove said Sunday as another spring training opened at the Peoria Sports Complex. “It felt like we had expectations of ourselves as a group, and it wasn’t talked about openly and out loud enough for everybody to understand what that was. We found ourselves in a little bit of a hole early on, and trying to find your identity when your back’s against the wall is a little difficult. So, I think we need to set the tone early on in spring training and figure out what the standards are here and make sure everyone’s on the same page.”

The past few months also saw Musgrove continue in his role as a natural connector. Musgrove spent another offseason organizing team get-togethers in San Diego, including a minicamp for pitchers and catchers last month. He initiated conversations with club newcomers such as Michael King, Randy Vásquez and Yuki Matsui. He again spent hours inside the Padres’ biomechanics laboratory at Point Loma Nazarene University, which hosted dozens of Padres pitchers at what is now a brick-and-mortar location.

“His work ethic is just through the roof,” lab director Arnel Aguinaldo said recently. “If we have a motion-capture session scheduled at 10, that guy is here at 8:30. I mean, he’s here before my grad students are. I’m like, ‘Joe, give me some time here.’”

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Michael King had a 2.75 ERA over 104 2/3 innings in 2023. (New York Yankees / Getty Images)

Sunday morning brought a similar example. King, San Diego’s projected No. 3 starter, arrived early at the Peoria Sports Complex only to find Musgrove already at work.

“I came in, and I’m like, ‘The ace of the team is the first one here today,’” King said. “It’s weird things like that that I’m just really pumped to be around.”

With the Yankees, King acquired a reputation as an earnest right-hander and a burgeoning talent. He lobbied manager Aaron Boone last spring for the opportunity to start games. The former reliever seized one such chance late in the summer, notching a 1.88 ERA over his final eight outings. When King was traded as the centerpiece of the return for Soto, he and his now-wife, Sheila, were days away from their wedding. King still embraced the timing; in a largely inexperienced Padres rotation, the 28-year-old no longer has to lobby for starts. Speaking Friday, he described his excitement at getting to learn from Musgrove, Darvish and pitching coach Ruben Niebla.

This group figures to be critical to any chance of contending in 2024. Some luck will be needed. Darvish was shut down last September with a stress reaction in his right olecranon, the bony tip of the elbow. King fractured the same bone in his elbow in 2022, prompting the Yankees to monitor his workload last season. To confirm he was progressing as hoped, Musgrove underwent multiple MRIs on his shoulder in the offseason. All three pitchers believe they can work significant innings this year, but the real tests will not come until the games do.

They will soon. The Padres’ first spring exhibition is Feb. 22 against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The two teams are scheduled to depart Arizona in mid-March; several days later, they will open the regular season at Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul. Mike Shildt, San Diego’s third manager in four years, has just 21 Cactus League games to prepare his team for Shohei Ohtani and Yoshinobu Yamamoto — and to forge the kind of identity Musgrove said was formerly missing.

“First of all, we’re going to be together,” Shildt said. “I mean, it starts there. And ‘together’ means going to the same goal and bringing everybody with us on what that looks like. And making sure people understand where we’re going and what it takes to get there. … Then it gets to be about just good, solid, fundamental baseball — you know, executing every area, in every phase of the game.”

The manager can take comfort in knowing that a respected clubhouse leader shares similar views.

“You’re talking about just a pro’s pro,” Shildt said of Musgrove. “He has taken the lead in the offseason again with spearheading some of the pitching and getting to know especially the guys coming over from New York and some of the younger pitchers. Getting to know them, making them feel comfortable and also making clear what our standards are.

“When you have somebody that models the standards like Joe, it makes your life a whole lot easier.”

Both men also share a constant sense of optimism. Shildt, since he was named manager, has spoken publicly of contending for a division title — never mind the projections and the Dodgers’ overwhelming talent. Musgrove on Friday praised Shildt, the fifth full-time manager under general manager A.J. Preller, as “a baseball rat.” Later, the pitcher was asked whether it was strange to consider the stark contrast between the 2023 Padres and the current roster, which is missing two starting outfielders and perhaps a starting pitcher.

“You look at it on paper; it is a little bit. But I got a lot of faith in A.J.,” Musgrove said. “That guy does things that not a lot of people do, and he is very well thought-out, so I know he’s not going into this knowing that we need two players without a plan in place.

“And we got a lot of young talent,” Musgrove added. “There’s opportunities here, and I think that’s good for these young guys, to come into camp feeling like there is an opportunity for them to earn a starting spot and be in that Opening Day group of guys.”

It was the kind of early-spring rhetoric that sounded familiar, coming from a leader of the franchise. A year ago in Peoria, Seidler spoke of his vision for a World Series parade in San Diego. He took exception to a question about the sustainability of the Padres’ extravagant spending.

“People love that word. Let’s find a different one,” Seidler said then. “Putting a great and winning team on the field in San Diego year after year is sustainable.”

A year later, the Padres are fielding a substantially lower payroll and face seemingly long odds of realizing Seidler’s vision. They will wear a jersey patch this season in honor of the late owner. It could serve as a reminder of the kind of ambition that took the franchise to uncharted territory.

The Padres likely need good fortune to ensure at least some of that ambition remains. More than ever, they also need the leader of their pitching staff.

“I mean, baseball’s the most exciting it’s been in San Diego in a long time, so Peter’s the guy that we owe a lot of that credit to,” Musgrove said. “So, a really difficult offseason for a lot of people, but it gives you that added motivation and drive going into this year to do it for a little more than us.”

(Top photo of Joe Musgrove: Nic Antaya / Getty Images)

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