Dylan Cease trade gives Padres a chance at the ace they needed

When attempting to replace the production of a Cy Young Award winner, it helps to add someone who nearly won the award in the prior year.

The Padres filled the vacancy left by 2023 National League Cy Young Award winner Blake Snell by acquiring Dylan Cease, the 2022 runner-up for the American League Cy Young Award. 

While Cease was unable to replicate that elite form last year, he is still one of five pitchers to have recorded at least 200 strikeouts in each of the past three seasons. The other four pitchers on that list — Gerrit Cole, Aaron Nola, Kevin Gausman and Corbin Burnes — will each make more than $15 million next season. Cease, who is still in arbitration, will be making less than half of that and is under team control for another year after this one.

That made the 28-year-old right-hander one of the most coveted pitchers on the trade market — and the perfect addition for a cost-cutting Padres team looking to replace an ace using a different approach from its recent free-spending ways. 

San Diego’s efforts to cut payroll were most obvious in December, when they dealt Juan Soto to the Yankees. The return from that trade would go toward rebuilding a rotation that lost the majority of its group to free agency. 

Snell, Seth Lugo and Michael Wacha led the Padres’ rotation in FanGraphs’ version of Wins Above Replacement last season. Add on Nick Martinez’s contributions, and a combined 10.8 fWAR walked out the building this offseason. The addition of Michael King, who looked terrific in his transition from Yankees reliever to starter last season, helped remove some of the sting. 

Still, it was hard to envision the new-look San Diego rotation approaching the same level of production as the 2023 iteration — which, as terrific as it was, still wasn’t quite enough to get the Padres to the postseason. 

King, the most accomplished player the Padres received in the Soto deal, had a 2.75 ERA last year while striking out the same number of batters per nine innings as Cease (10.9). But King didn’t become a starter until late August, and while he looked plenty capable of handling that role — he allowed one or no earned runs in seven of his eight starts — it’s hard to know with any certainty how much of a workload he can shoulder in 2024. Last year’s 104.2 innings pitched represented a career high for the 28-year-old, who had never before thrown more than 64 innings in his five-year career. 

Chicago White Sox’s Dylan Cease discusses changes he wants in MLB

The Soto deal netted the Padres two more options to fill out their rotation in 26-year-old Jhony Brito and 25-year-old Randy Vásquez, but those two players have combined to make 18 major-league starts, and neither project to be frontline starters. Even with accomplished veterans Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish, the Padres rotation would have been hard-pressed to challenge the likes of a Dodgers team that added Shohei Ohtani, Yoshinobu Yamamoto and Tyler Glasnow; a Diamondbacks team that just won the National League pennant; and a Giants team that just added Jung Hoo Lee, Jorge Soler and Matt Chapman in the NL West. 

With King and Cease, there is hope. If he can tap back into his 2022 form, Cease gives the Padres the ace the group otherwise lacked. 

Two years ago, Cease went 14-8 with a 2.20 ERA while striking out 11.1 batters per nine innings. Last year represented a step in the wrong direction. His strikeout rate and velocity dipped slightly, his hard-hit rate jumped more dramatically, he led the majors with 14 wild pitches and he didn’t get as much chase. Still, few starters in baseball possess a fastball/slider combination quite like Cease’s. 

While his slider lacked some of the characteristics it held in his breakout 2022 season, it still generated a whiff rate of 43.3% for the second straight year. Spencer Strider was the only pitcher to record more strikeouts on his slider last season than Cease, who pitched much better than his 4.58 ERA would indicate. His FIP (fielding-independent pitching), which correlates to ERA and is built around strikeout, walk and home-run rates, was 3.72.

That is why the Padres were willing to part with Drew Thorpe, the only top-100 prospect they received from New York in the Soto trade, to get him. In Thorpe, Jairo Iriarte and Samuel Zavala, the White Sox received three of the Padres’ top 10 prospects in addition to an arm who can help them now in Steven Wilson. Thorpe and Iriarte could impact the major-league pitching staff before year’s end, while Zavala’s .420 on-base percentage as an 18-year-old at Low-A provides optimism for the future. 

It’s an understandable return for Cease, and one the White Sox weren’t likely to get had they waited much longer. 

Chicago’s rebuild was San Diego’s opportunity. 

For the Padres to compete in the NL West, their rotation needed stability and upside. But they weren’t going to pay for it the way they might have in previous years. 

By acquiring Cease, who has made at least 32 starts each of the last three years, they didn’t have to. 

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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