Padres’ lopsided spring opener is ‘irrelevant,’ but high-stakes evaluation has begun

PEORIA, Ariz. — The maelstrom created by Major League Baseball’s new, see-through pants is “irrelevant, honestly,” Joe Musgrove said, and the San Diego Padres right-hander might as well have been discussing his unsightly pitching line in the first spring game of the 2024 season. He pretty much was.

“The results are kind of irrelevant at this point,” Musgrove had said moments earlier, after facing four Los Angeles Dodgers without recording an out. “You never want to go out there and fail, but the progression is a little more important than the results right now.”

The Padres, for the record, are still waiting for their allotment of potentially transparent trousers to arrive in camp. Musgrove and the other 30 players who appeared for San Diego in Thursday’s Cactus League opener wore last year’s pants. As the sport deals with a budding sartorial crisis, no one seems to know when all of the Padres’ new pants will report. Musgrove, a clubhouse leader, is taking a pragmatic approach.

“I mean, pants are pants,” he said. “We’re going to wear them. If they don’t fit right, you’ll deal with it. It’s not the most important thing.”

The Padres have bigger things to worry about. For them, and for all of the rightful minimizing of an exhibition performance, this spring might be as relevant as any before it.

While they await their updated pants, they have holes to fill at the following positions: left field, center field, designated hitter and the final two spots in the starting rotation. Acquiring a pricey free agent or a high-paid trade candidate would be a surprise. The Padres appear compelled to give the various prospects in big-league camp — some with little experience above A-ball — ample opportunity to win Opening Day jobs. First pitch at Gocheok Sky Dome is in a little less than four weeks, and the risk of a less-than-fully-baked roster is significant.

“Guys are going to get after it, guys are going to get opportunities and, you know, you don’t want to overevaluate in spring training,” Padres manager Mike Shildt said earlier this week. “But the reality is, we’re going to make decisions based on what it looks like. We’ve got open spots in a lot of different areas of our club, and we’ll see who can grab them.”

Thursday’s 14-1 loss to the Dodgers brought a lopsided outcome along with a few encouraging glimpses.

Japanese standout Yuki Matsui, making his stateside debut, struck out the side — an inning after waiver claim Jeremiah Estrada, making his Padres debut, struck out the side.

“From what I saw, he’s pretty damn good,” Dodgers infielder Gavin Lux said after going down swinging against Matsui.

“I was pretty nervous before the outing,” Matsui said through interpreter Yusuke Horii, “but Estrada made really good pitches before me, so he gave me some confidence.”

Twenty-year-old shortstop and burgeoning outfielder Jackson Merrill made a couple of nice catches in left field, including a snag of a sinking liner off the bat of Mookie Betts.

“I believe I’ve come a long way since I started (auditioning in the outfield) last year,” said Merrill, perhaps the leading roster candidate among the prospects in camp. “I feel like now I’m taking good first steps first of all in every direction.”

First baseman Jake Cronenworth, coming off the worst hitting season of his career, homered for the Padres’ lone run. New/old starting shortstop Ha-Seong Kim singled and walked in his two plate appearances. New second baseman Xander Bogaerts chased after a bloop single, fielded the ball and flung an on-target throw to Kim. The Padres did not commit an error.

Then there was Musgrove, who threw 24 pitches — roughly as many as planned — but surrendered four runs on two hits and a walk.

“Nobody’s going to make excuses, (especially not) Joe, but we do have to recognize it’s basically his first big-league game since July 28,” Shildt said. “You know, he went out there, and he was around the plate. Just not his day.”

Musgrove, the Padres’ possible Opening Day starter, last pitched in a regular-season contest almost seven months ago. Shoulder capsule inflammation, one of the more worrisome ailments for a pitcher, ended his 2023 campaign before the trade deadline. So far this spring, Musgrove has reported no issues in his build-back. He is aiming to go two innings in his next scheduled outing, Monday against the Cleveland Guardians.

“I could have struck out the side, and I wouldn’t have felt much different than I do right now,” Musgrove said after Thursday’s unofficial clunker. “The first one’s always about getting your feet under you, getting used to the (pitch) clock again, the competition of not facing your own guys and just throwing bullpens, getting that feel again. So, a lot of good things I liked about it. Obviously, the results weren’t where I wanted, but I felt like I controlled the counts. Just didn’t execute two-strike pitches and ultimately put myself in a tough spot to work out of.”

Musgrove should get four more spring outings to prove his health. Thursday, at best, was an unsightly start. The top of the first inning saw Musgrove and minor leaguers Carter Loewen and Gabe Mosser all take the mound. It lasted 26 minutes, and by the end, the Dodgers had an 8-0 lead. It was easy to characterize the immediate drubbing as an ominous preview of March 20-21 in Seoul, where the sport’s foremost juggernaut and the Padres will play each other for real.

First, the teams will meet in a Cactus League rematch Friday, this time at the Dodgers’ spring home.

“It’s not the result we would have liked,” Merrill said, “but we play them again tomorrow, you know? Today was one day, and tomorrow’s a new day.”

And for an incomplete roster still waiting on its pants, another day for high-stakes evaluation.

(Photo of Jackson Merrill: Mark J. Rebilas / USA Today)

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