For the Padres, the 2012 season was supposed to be a repeat of the 2011 campaign. The team wasn't expected to compete, and much of the year would be consumed by seeing what useful pieces existed on the major-league roster, while simultaneously waiting for prospects to do their thing and earn that last promotion to the bigs.
That was the plan on paper, but injuries have derailed the rotation already. Tim Stauffer has yet to pitch a game in 2012, thanks to an elbow strain that has him on the 15-day disabled list. Dustin Moseley made one start and threw five innings before undergoing right shoulder surgery on his labrum and rotator cuff. While Stauffer is expected back this year, and is in the midst of a rehabilitation assignment, Moseley is on the 60-day DL and won't return in 2012.
Moseley and Stauffer were the two oldest starting pitchers in the rotation, at 30 and 29 years old, respectively. While Moseley is around mostly as an inexpensive bridge arm that can get the current Padres to their prospect-rich future, Stauffer is one of the club's productive arms. Over the last three years and 341 frames, Stauffer owns a 112 ERA+ and 2.2 K/BB, and he's still under contract through the 2013 season. Injuries to these two are regrettable, but they have opened up the door for starting-pitching prospects to give the majors a shot ahead of schedule.
The first of these was Anthony Bass. Bass was a member of the 2011 squad, throwing 48 innings across three starts and 24 relief appearances. While he featured an impressive-looking 1.68 ERA, he also struck out just 4.5 batters per nine, and issued nearly as many walks. Credit a small-sample batting average on balls in play and the pro-pitcher environment of Petco Park for Bass's 2011, but, to this point in 2012, Bass is the one you want to credit with his own success.
Bass has made two appearances in relief, but in Stauffer's absence, he's also made four starts. In his 27 innings, the 24-year-old right-hander has struck out 27 batters against 10 walks, and held opponents to a 540 OPS. This is all somewhat surprising, as Bass threw just five innings at Triple-A last year before getting the call to the majors, and didn't dominate Double-A before that promotion, either. He wasn't listed as a top 20 Padres prospect by Baseball Prospectus in any of the last three seasons, and in two of those, there wasn't even much to speak of on the farm.
He's shown flashes, though. Baseball America rated him as having the best control in the organization after 2010, and also the best control in the California League. Between High-A and Double-A, Bass compiled 235 innings, and walked just 55 batters (2.1 per nine). At the same time, he struck out 191 batters for a 3.4 K/BB across the two levels. Having stellar command isn't enough on its own in the majors, even if young hurlers can get away with it in the minors. But as teammate Cory Luebke can attest to, command as your best feature isn't always a bad thing.
His slider has been effective for both swings-and-misses and inducing grounders, while his mid-90s four-seamer has also helped out with grounders. He's not likely to maintain his ridiculously-low ERA going forward, but Bass is a fringe prospect who just might have made it to the majors anyway. That's a bonus for a Padres team that has a trio of pitching prospects lined up behind him -- Bass doesn't need to keep working out for this team to succeed in the future.
One of those, Joe Wieland, is already on the roster thanks to Moseley's surgery. Unlike Bass, Wieland is a top-100 prospect, and supposed to be an important part of the club's future. Expectations for him should be tempered, as he's all of 22 years old and with all of two Triple-A starts to his credit, but early signs have been encouraging.
Wieland's first start was a disaster with six runs and three homers allowed over five innings. In games where Matt Kemp didn't rudely welcome him to the majors, though, Wieland has shined. In his last three starts, he's amassed 17 innings, 19 strikeouts against just six walks, and posted a 3.18 ERA. You can't erase his first major-league start, as it's just as much a part of his development process as the success he's found. But it doesn't make his follow-up performances any less impressive.
It's likely Wieland moves back to Triple-A when Stauffer returns, but the Padres could always find a new role for the struggling Clayton Richard if they want the future to pitch in San Diego now.
Should Wieland end up back in Tucson, he'll join another pitcher who could find themselves in San Diego at anytime within the next year. Casey Kelly still looked like someone who tried to convert to pitching after playing shortstop in 2011, as his raw abilities remained just that. To start 2012, though, after a promotion to Triple-A, Kelly's pure stuff has translated into results. It's early, and he still has roadblocks ahead of him, but success from a 22-year-old in Triple-A is a positive. Robbie Erlin, acquired with Wieland at the trade deadline last July, is still at Double-A San Antonio. Given he's striking out nearly 12 batters per nine with five times as many punchouts as walks, he might not be long for that level.
Bass, Wieland, Kelly, and Erlin could all be mainstays in the rotation by next year. With Stauffer and Edinson Volquez around, there's no need to rush development, but half of them are already here and showing glimpses of what they're capable of. This season might not be as exciting as Padres fans would like, but injuries have created a chance to see the future of the franchise: an even younger, even more promising rotation of prospects.