Coming off a rough week that featured the passing of franchise icon Tony Gwynn and the firing of general manager Josh Byrnes, the Padres were in desperate need of a pick-me-up. They received one on Monday night via Cuban defector Odrisamer Despaigne, who shut out the Giants for seven innings in his major league debut en route to a 6-0 Padres win.
The 27-year-old Despaigne defected last July while traveling to a European tournament with the Cuban national team. Prior to that, he spent eight seasons (from 2006 to 2013) pitching for Havana powerhouse Industriales in the Serie Nacional, compiling a 61-43 record with a 3.55 ERA. In 2011-2012, he went 13-8 with a 2.60 ERA and 6.8 strikeouts per nine in 169 1/3 innings, while the following year, he went 5-2 with a 2.58 ERA and 5.9 strikeouts per nine in 83 2/3 innings. He was on Cuba’s 2013 World Baseball Classic roster but did not pitch. After defecting, he established residency in Spain and began workouts in Mexico.
Following a February tryout with the Padres in which he worked 92-94 mph and touched 95, the Padres signed him to a minor league deal with a $1 million signing bonus. He dominated in two appearances at Double-A San Antonio, striking out 12 in 7 2/3 innings, but had been roughed up for a 7.61 ERA in five starts covering 23 2/3 innings at Triple-A El Paso due to a combination of high walk and homer rates and a .373 BABIP.
With Andrew Cashner hitting the disabled list due to right shoulder soreness, the Padres needed a starter on Monday night, so they took the wraps off Despaigne, who showed off a wide array of pitches, speeds and arm angles en route to an efficient, contact-centric approach. He retired the first 10 Giants he faced using just 32 pitches before Hunter Pence, his lone strikeout victim for the night in his first at-bat, touched him for a double with one out in the fourth. He yielded just three more hits: a fifth-inning single by Brandon Crawford, a sixth-inning double by Gregor Blanco and a seventh-inning single by Mike Morse, but none of the runners advanced. He threw first-pitch strikes to 15 of 24 hitters he faced, and while he got just five swings and misses from among his 86 pitches, he didn't walk a single batter, went to a three-ball count just three times, and generated 12 groundballs, including a double play grounder that erased Morse. He needed more than 13 pitches an inning only in the sixth, when he threw 21.
Via the hand-coded PITCHf/x data at BrooksBaseball.net, Despaigne relied primarily on a sinker that averaged 91.9 mph and maxed out at 94.1 but also used a cutter, changeup, slider and two distinct curveballs, one of them a big, slow bender that averaged 68.0 mph. Here's the MLB.com highlight clip:
Via Game Score, Despaigne's 70 ranks as the seventh-best of any Cuban starter in his major league debut. The top dozen on that list includes some big names and some obscure ones:
|Tommy de la Cruz||4/20/44||CIN||CHC||9||5||1||1||0||2||75|
With Jose Fernandez out for the year due to Tommy John surgery, Despaigne joins Elias, Reds closer Aroldis Chapman and Royals reliever Francisley Bueno as the only Cuban-born pitchers currently in the majors, though Raul Valdes (Astros) and Yoslan Herrera (Angels) made appearances earlier this year. Fernandez and Chapman have made big splashes stateside, of course, while the rookie Elias has put up a 3.74 ERA and 7.8 strikeouts per nine in 16 starts for the Mariners.
While he's clearly earned a longer look, don't expect Despaigne to have a Fernandez- or Chapman-sized impact, to say nothing of those of Cuban-born sluggers Yasiel Puig and Jose Abreu. His upside is as a mid-rotation starter, which will certainly suffice for the Padres, who have just two other active starters with an ERA+ better than 100, not counting the injured Cashner (144, on a 2.39 ERA); one of those is Jesse Hahn, who has all of three starts under his belt, the other is Tyson Ross (105, on a 3.22 ERA). Given the second Tommy John surgeries of Corey Luebke and Josh Johnson as well as Robbie Erlin's bout of elbow soreness, the Padres have room for any starter who can hold his own. At least upon first look, Despaigne fits that bill.