As Yu Darvish awaits more clarity, Padres rotation heading into 2024 looks cloudy

SAN DIEGO — Yu Darvish expressed both relief and uncertainty Thursday, hours after being examined by elbow specialist Dr. Keith Meister. Meister, Darvish said, assured him there was “nothing wrong” with his surgically repaired ulnar collateral ligament. That part of the diagnosis supplied some peace of mind for a 37-year-old who might be approaching the twilight of his career. Still, the exact source of the inflammation that sent Darvish to the injured list earlier this week remained unclear.

Maybe it was the bone spur that the San Diego Padres starter has pitched with since at least 2022. Maybe not.

“That’s what we don’t know,” Darvish, speaking through interpreter Shingo Horie, said before Thursday’s 7-2 loss to the San Francisco Giants.

What Darvish did know was that imaging taken Wednesday revealed small but noticeable changes to the bone spur from imaging taken in January, not long before he signed a six-year, $108 million contract extension. For the Padres, that unusually lengthy commitment is only amplifying the broader uncertainty that has surrounded their pitching staff heading into the final month of a catastrophic season — and, soon enough, going into 2024.

Darvish, who received a cortisone shot in his elbow and will not throw for at least a few days, hopes to pitch again before September is over. “I’m being paid to go out there to pitch,” Darvish said, “and I feel like it may be disrespectful in a way if I don’t try my best to come back.” So does Joe Musgrove, who signed a five-year, $100 million extension last summer and is rehabbing a shoulder capsule injury. But both veterans acknowledge that, given the Padres’ place in the standings and the locations of their ailments, they might not pitch again in 2023.

For Darvish, a second Tommy John surgery — he underwent one in 2015 — would sideline him for all of 2024.

“It depends on how my elbow reacts to the cortisone shot,” Darvish said, “but hopefully it’s not something more serious.”

The Padres can ill afford the worst-case scenario. Cy Young contender Blake Snell is weeks away from free agency, where he is expected to command a nine-figure contract that could exceed the team’s comfort level. Eventual surgery has not been ruled out for Musgrove or Darvish, even if it is merely to shave down Darvish’s bone spur.

“If you take the bone spur out, the elbow becomes too loose and then there’s a possibility of more stress on the ligament,” said Darvish, who is not yet sure whether he will opt for such a procedure. “So, I think this is a little bit tricky.”

The Padres will face an interesting decision on Michael Wacha, who has a 2.84 ERA, a two-year, $32 million club option and a history of shoulder trouble. Seth Lugo is all but certain to decline his $7.5 million player option and re-enter the open market.

When the 2024 season opens, there is at least a slight chance the only healthy holdovers in the starting rotation will be swingmen Nick Martinez and Pedro Avila, who surrendered six runs, one earned, in three innings Thursday.

The outlook, of course, could improve. Darvish and Musgrove could avoid surgery. The Padres can soon shed the sizable, expiring contracts of Snell, closer Josh Hader and Drew Pomeranz, who has not pitched for them since 2021. The 2023-24 free-agent class is relatively deep in starters, although Shohei Ohtani’s torn UCL figures to inflate the price tags on other arms. Team officials believe a number of intriguing pitching prospects — including Robby Snelling, Adam Mazur, Austin Krob and Jairo Iriarte — could be ready for the majors by next summer.

Musgrove, Snell and Darvish — three of general manager A.J. Preller’s most fruitful trade acquisitions — have combined for 23.2 WAR since 2021, according to Baseball Reference. Meanwhile, since 2015, all pitchers signed out of the amateur draft by the Padres have combined for 19.4 WAR.

Thursday afternoon at Petco Park, Darvish spoke in hopeful and mildly apprehensive terms about his elbow. Setup man Robert Suarez, who received a five-year, $46 million contract to be a potential replacement for Hader, finally began serving his 10-game suspension for violating the league’s ban on foreign substances. While he is out, the Padres will be down a man. Thus, when rosters expand Friday, they will be limited to carrying 13 pitchers. Other teams will have 14 at their disposal.

Not that it will matter much in the end. Thursday night, the Giants — who have eschewed long-term megadeals and prized flexibility — no-hit the Padres until rookie utilityman Matthew Batten singled with two outs in the bottom of the fifth. San Francisco’s offense piled up six runs, five unearned, in the top of the third as Batten committed a pair of errors at first base. Avila was lifted for Matt Waldron, who supplied five innings in his third and best outing in the majors.

And the Padres were routed in their sixth loss in seven games. Their playoff odds, according to FanGraphs, are nearing 0 percent. Now their chances of building some positive momentum heading into a painful offseason also appear to be flickering.

(Photo of Yu Darvish pitching Aug. 25: John Fisher / Getty Images)

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