Dylan Cease Makes the Padres a Top Tier Contender Again

It's not easy to replace a reigning Cy Young winner, but the San Diego Padres did just that by trading for Dylan Cease.

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 20: Dylan Cease #84 of the Chicago White Sox pitches in the first inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Guaranteed Rate Field on September 20, 2022 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)

The duality of San Diego Padres GM A.J. Preller is a spectacle that never fails to grab headlines.

As San Diego prepares to open their season next week in Seoul, South Korea against the Los Angeles Dodgers, they’ll do so with a new face: 28-year-old right-hander Dylan Cease. The Padres acquired him from the Chicago White Sox, sending back four players in return (three of them were top prospects).

You may recall that this same front office traded away one of its premier talents in Juan Soto to the New York Yankees for a pitcher-heavy package only three months ago. And if you’d like to indulge in further irony, the Padres flipped one of the prospects they acquired for Soto (Drew Thorpe) in their package for Cease. Got all of that?

Perhaps the most important development resulting from all of this movement, however, is that Dylan Cease returns San Diego to contender form in what is shaping up to be a hyper-competitive National League playoff field.

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Dylan Cease is an Ideal Blake Snell Replacement

We didn’t forget about Blake Snell, the reigning NL Cy Young Winner who still has yet to sign with a new team for 2024. The fact that the Padres managed to replace him before he’s even landed elsewhere is nothing short of remarkable. Of course, few could’ve anticipated the apparent deep freeze on Scott Boras’ clients this winter, either.

A cursory glance at both Cease and Snell’s 2023 numbers seem to paint a clear picture: Snell was better than Cease last season. But comparing last year’s production doesn’t do Cease nearly enough justice when considering his immense upside.

Blake Snell – 2023 StatsDylan Cease – 2023 Stats
32 starts, 2.25 ERA, 1.19 WHIP, 11.7 K/9, 4.95 BB/9, 4.1 fWAR33 starts, 4.58 ERA, 1.42 WHIP, 10.88 K/9, 4.02 BB/9, 3.7 fWAR

Upon further examination, you’ll notice many similarities between the two hurlers in terms of starts made, strikeout rate, walk rate and fWAR. The only major difference? Their ERAs.

On the surface, Cease’s 4.58 ERA is more than two full runs higher than Snell’s 2.25, which undoubtedly played a major role in the latter winning his second Cy Young Award.

But a deeper dive into peripherals tells a different narrative. For example, Snell’s expected ERA (xERA) in 2023 was 3.77, along with a FIP of 3.44. When juxtaposed against Cease’s xERA of 4.07 and 3.72 FIP, one could argue they were… very similar pitchers in 2023.

Granted, this isn’t how circumstances unfolded for either pitcher last season, as Snell vastly overachieved while Cease solidly underachieved.

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And that’s the thing about baseball: there’s a certain degree of fortune involved.

To that point, the good news for Cease (and conversely, bad news for Snell) is that regression back to the mean also factors into a player’s year-to-year performance. That indicates we can likely expect better production from Cease in 2024, while simultaneously anticipating a return to earth for Snell. It’s hard not to like the gamble the San Diego Padres made here.

Even beyond numbers, though, it’s hard not fall in love with Cease’s raw stuff. Case in point: No pitcher in the sport has generated more swings and misses since 2021.

Furthermore, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris’ Stuff+ metric concurs: Cease’s 115 Stuff+ rating in 2023 topped Blake Snell’s 107 Stuff+, attesting to Cease’s elite fastball velocity, off-speed pitch shapes and overall pitch movement (Stuff+ uses these criteria to evaluate a pitcher’s pure arsenal).

That, in tandem with Padres’ pitching coach Ruben Niebla, who is regarded as one of baseball’s best, could lead to another break out campaign for Cease in 2024 if he’s able to harness his command.

Perhaps the biggest coup of all for the Padres, however, is that they didn’t have to hand Cease a multi-year, nine-figure contract to acquire (or re-acquire, in Snell’s case) his services. Instead, they land the 28-year-old with two more arbitration years, a real boon for an organization that has stated its intention to compete with a reduced payroll in 2024.

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To be clear, despite the lower financial terms, the prospect haul they surrendered was still hefty.

Even on that front, though, San Diego managed to retain their top-ranked talents, including young catching phenom Ethan Salas, newly-minted big league center fielder Jackson Merrill, as well as pitchers Robby Snelling and Dylan Lesko. That surely made the hit to their farm system much easier to absorb.

And finally, Blake Snell is plain unlikely to repeat his Cy Young performance in 2024 (He often alternates an elite season with a lackluster one), further legitimizing the Padres’ pivot to Dylan Cease.

The Padres Can Once Again Compete in a Stacked NL West

San Diego had many needs to fill during the off-season, most notably seeking alternatives to Snell and new Houston Astros closer Josh Hader. And after trading Juan Soto to the Yankees, the Padres were faced with an especially difficult challenge: replacing their best position player from last season.

They won’t be able to fully compensate for losing Soto and his 5.5 fWAR in 2023, but they’ve at least made a solid effort to close the gap on the combined departures of Snell and Hader, as well as Michael Wacha, Seth Lugo and Nick Martinez from their pitching staff.

Former Yankee Wandy Peralta and relievers Yuki Matsui and Woo-Suk Go arrived via free agency, while pitchers Michael King, Randy Vasquez and Jhony Brito were acquired in the Soto trade with New York. This depth will undoubtedly become valuable throughout the season, but it’s hard to sugarcoat just how massive losing star talent can be.

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That’s at least in part why FanGraphs’ Dan Szymborski and his 2024 ZiPS projections had the Padres pegged for 79 wins, good for fourth place in the National League West.

But let’s say the Padres did an adequate enough job of replacing Hader with Matsui, Woo-Suk Go and Peralta. How does Cease stack up with Blake Snell? Quite favorably, if you consult the projections.

ZiPs believes Dylan Cease will be worth 3.4 fWAR in 2024, which slightly edges out Snell’s projection of 3.1 fWAR and concurs with our earlier analysis. Should this all hold true, San Diego came away with an upgrade, even if by the slimmest of margins (although Cease has more upside than Snell in general).

With Cease in the fold, the top of the Padres’ rotation looks formidable once again. Alongside Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove, San Diego will hope this reincarnated trio can return them to the postseason in 2024, just as they did with Blake Snell in 2022.

That said, the Padres have stiff competition in their division this season: the Los Angeles Dodgers are locked and loaded with arguably the best roster in baseball. The Arizona Diamondbacks improved a young team that appeared in the 2023 World Series.

And don’t forget about the San Francisco Giants, who’ve made a flurry of their own moves to position themselves towards relevancy, at minimum.

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Regardless, there’s no denying that Cease helps bring the Padres back to the forefront of the playoff discussion, with a rotation that can match up with the best of them.

Closing Thoughts

There’s nothing like the excitement of a blockbuster trade. And the San Diego Padres have mastered this better than most clubs since hiring A.J. Preller back in 2014.

It’s clear that nothing will deter Preller from making a big splash, whether he has the financial backing of ownership or not. The Cease trade is a perfect example of this, as was the Soto deal just months earlier. And the Padres will be nothing if not interesting to watch again this season.

With Cease officially in the fold, San Diego is ready to compete for a playoff berth in 2024. But the true cherry on top is that the Padres control the 28-year-old for another season of arbitration after 2024. This ensures they’ve locked in their current starting rotation for the foreseeable future, without necessitating yet another long-term commitment to a pitcher on the wrong side of 30.

That’s a luxury worth paying for.

Padres fans can look forward to watching Dylan Cease every fifth day. With his arsenal, durability and whiff generation, they should be excited about what’s on the horizon.

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