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Triple-A homework: El Paso starters pitching in relief to prepare to help Padres

Padres pitcher Reiss Knehr is among those in Triple-A preparing to give Padres relief help down the road.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

With options for the big-league rotation seven deep, the Padres’ Triple-A starting pitchers have all taken turns working out of the bullpen

A.J. Preller acquired Sean Manaea a week before the season, traded away Chris Paddack on opening day, lost Blake Snell to injury on Day 4 and still had a working five-man rotation even with Mike Clevinger weeks away from returning from Tommy John surgery.

Nick Martinez has bounced seamlessly between the rotation and relief work while Snell worked his way back and Clevinger negotiated a second IL stint. MacKenzie Gore has been a fixture since making his MLB debut in April. Until Clevinger landed in COVID protocols, the Padres hadn’t even entertained dipping into their Triple-A stockpile for a rotation arm and even when they did, Ryan Weathers’ start in Chicago was a one-and-done affair.

Through it all, the Padres’ rotation ranks first in the majors with 39 quality starts, fifth with a 3.42 ERA and likely dead last in opportunity.

“Our big-league staff is one of the best in the league on paper,” Triple-A El Paso right-hander Jesse Scholtens said. “Then you watch what they’re actually doing, you’re like, ‘Holy cow,’ and there’s seven of those guys doing it at the highest level in the big leagues right now.

“So the chances of us maybe going there and replacing one of those guys? Probably not so likely.”

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Which is why the starting pitchers stashed in El Paso, Texas, have spent a good deal of time pitching in various relief roles in recent weeks, because that’s most likely how they’ll be used if and when Chihuahuas manager Jared Sandberg’s phone rings.

While park factors in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League have played a role, as has a recent COVID outbreak, Weathers is the only El Paso starter to have pitched more than six innings in a start this month and only one other pitcher (left-hander Aaron Leasher) has finished five innings in a start in June.

The rest of El Paso’s rotation plans for the last couple weeks has been a mash-up of spot starts and bullpen games as the organization keeps an eye on what could be the best way to supplement the big-league pitching staff, a strength of a team still neck-and-neck with the Dodgers atop the NL West.

“We don’t need to send a starting pitcher up there with the starters they have,” Sandberg said. “They have depth. They need these guys to learn to come out of the bullpen.”

Reiss Knehr is Exhibit A.

Ranked No. 7 among Padres prospects by MLB.com, the 25-year-old pitched exclusively out of Double-A San Antonio’s rotation to start 2021, debuted with the Padres as a spot starter and bounced from the bullpen to the rotation and El Paso the final two months of the season.

This year, Knehr made three Triple-A starts before throwing the final four innings of a game against Reno in April. After six more starts, he came out of the bullpen to throw two shutout innings at Salt Lake, threw the first three innings of a game in Albuquerque three days later and found himself jogging out of San Diego’s bullpen four days after that.

That he was able to strike out three over 4 2/3 shutout innings in relief after Gore’s worst start of the season and follow it up with two no-hit innings in Colorado last Friday made it all that much more difficult for Knehr to be the roster casualty Monday when MLB forced teams to pare their pitching staffs to 13.

“Those are hard, especially when he came up and contributed the way he did and saved us,” said Ryan Flaherty, serving at the time as Padres acting manager. “I think Reiss understands the nature of that, but those aren’t easy for what he did when he was up here.”

All El Paso starters have that understanding.

Weathers (6.90 ERA) is the Chihuahuas’ only starter to appear exclusively as a starter, although he certainly has experience in the bullpen after debuting in that capacity in the playoffs in 2020 and pitching in relief to start 2021.

Knehr (8.43 ERA) and Leasher (6.20 ERA) are second on El Paso’s staff with 10 starts, followed by nine from Scholtens (3.40 ERA) and six each from Pedro Avila (7.09 ERA) and Luke Westphal (4.14 ERA).

Avila already has thrown four innings in relief in the majors this while on the 40-man roster and has made six additional appearances out of El Paso’s bullpen.

Leasher counts a two-out relief appearance, as well three- and four-inning stints among his bullpen outings, while Scholtens threw four shutout innings in relief in early May at Sugar Land and then a scoreless ninth inning on June 9 as he returned from a COVID list stint. He’s since been building his stamina back up, throwing two innings of one-run ball in a start on June 12 and allowing three runs in 3 1/3 innings on Friday.

“We’re getting our work in here,” said Scholtens, the Padres’ ninth-round pick in 2016, “learning some of that versatility so that when the time does come, when we do get that call, we’re ready to help the big-league team out.”


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