The annual "innings cap" debate has begun earlier and rung louder this season than ever before, thanks in large part to a San Diego Padres rookie named Chris Paddack. The No. 7 starting pitcher and No. 21 player overall on the ESPN Player Rater, Paddack has been one of the early frontrunners for National League Rookie of the Year (although Pete Alonso is giving him plenty of competition). At the same time, Paddack has been tasked with a workload that sees him on pace for nearly an identical number of frames this season to what he has thrown in his first four professional seasons -- combined.
Let me preface the discussion of this topic with how much I can't stand innings caps, or any attempts to gauge a pitcher's workload by how many outs he records. At the very least, teams would be smarter to use games pitched, batters faced or pitches thrown. Still, most organizations use arbitrary measures to judge whether a pitcher's annual workload is excessive -- and most often it's identified by his innings total. There's a traditional thought that anything more than a 40-inning jump from one season to the next puts a pitcher in risky territory as far as injuries or diminished performance.
That's why teams routinely keep the workloads of their younger arms in check, often shutting them down entirely when the calendar reaches August or September, or when they fall out of postseason contention. With head-to-head fantasy baseball play only on the rise, that's a devastating time for fantasy teams to lose these often-critical contributors.
Listed below are nine pitchers currently on pace for at least a 40-inning jump in workload this season. Including Paddack, eight of these hurlers currently rank among our Player Rater's top-25 starting pitchers, with the ninth being a pitcher with a 3.07 ERA and four quality starts in his last five appearances. These pitchers might effectively have expiration dates on their fantasy utility in 2019, so I've suggested some trade candidates if you'd like to avoid any premature shutdowns.
Paddack: He's this year's "poster boy" as a pitcher whose theoretical innings cap (I say "theoretical" since the Padres haven't announced a specific number, though most who cover the team believe it's between 130-150) has already been discussed ad nauseam. It might surprise you, however, to learn that he's actually on pace for just 172 innings -- hardly an abusive amount. It is, however, a large workload when contrasted against the 90 frames he worked in the minors in 2018, his first season following August 2016 Tommy John surgery and his professional career-high.
Paddack's has a changeup/mid-90s fastball combination that is already elite at this level, making him difficult to trade away since his performance is tough to match on a per-outing basis, but the Padres have shown a history of conservative innings caps (see: Latos, Mat) and six-man rotations (they've already instituted this once in 2019) that threaten the rookie's utility in fantasy during the season's summer weeks. It's probably also the reason why we've begun to hear chatter about the Padres trading for a front-line starter.
Mike Soroka, Atlanta Braves: He's currently on pace for 182 innings, which isn't a monstrous jump from his pro career-high of 153 2/3 (2017) or his 143 frames of 2016. After he was limited to just 56 1/3 innings in 2018 due to shoulder issues, however, it seems unwise for the Braves to excessively push a soon-to-be 22-year-old. Their playoff standing might have a say in Soroka's final number, but this is also a team that has many alternatives with big-league experience in either the big-league bullpen or Triple-A Gwinnett's rotation, such as Kolby Allard, Touki Toussaint, Bryse Wilson and Kyle Wright.
Caleb Smith, Miami Marlins: While he doesn't fit Paddack's "young phenom" description (Smith will turn 28 years old in July), it's still difficult to envision Smith maintaining his current pace of 177 innings -- at least at this level of effectiveness. Remember, these aren't always tales of seasonal shutdowns, but often pitchers tiring or losing the feel for their stuff as they pile on the innings, and Smith is a pitcher who needs to be sharp every night due to his extreme fly-ball leaning. He has never previously exceeded 135 innings (in 2015) as a professional, was limited to 77 1/3 frames in 2018 due to injury, and pitches for a rebuilding Marlins team that isn't about to push him any further than necessary.
Tyler Glasnow, Tampa Bay Rays: The forearm strain that currently has him on the injured list should help keep his overall innings total in check, but even if we conservatively say that he'll miss 40 total Rays games and re-pace his 2019 innings over what remains, Glasnow would still be on track for 159 innings -- the most in his eight-year professional career. Expect the Rays to be as cautious with him as possible, regardless of their competitive state. However, for fantasy purposes, it would absolutely be better to lose a six-week chunk of his season now rather than in August and/or September.
Domingo German, New York Yankees: He's doing yeoman's work filling in for a Yankees rotation that has at times been missing Luis Severino, James Paxton, CC Sabathia and/or Jonathan Loaisiga. Still, German might soon pay the price for all his early-season work in the form of (ranked in terms of likelihood) diminished effectiveness, a late-season move to the bullpen to slow his pace, or an early shutdown. Though he's 26 years old, German has never thrown more than 123 2/3 innings in any of his 10 professional seasons. Yet, hje's on pace for 177 frames this year.
Max Fried, Atlanta Braves: With 50 1/3 innings already under his belt, Fried is nearly halfway to his professional career-high of 118 2/3 (2017), and on pace for 170. He might not be as young as rotation-mate Soroka, but as a 25-year-old who had Tommy John surgery in August 2014, Fried will almost assuredly have his workload kept in check in the coming weeks. Atlanta's aforementioned rotation depth makes that a certainty.
Matt Strahm, San Diego Padres: Like the Braves, the Padres have a pair of incumbent members of their rotations facing potential innings caps, with Strahm's current pace of 149 frames dwarfing his 75 2/3 innings of 2018 and being considerably greater than his professional career-high of 124 1/3 in 2016. Strahm also has Tommy John surgery (2013) as well as surgery for a torn patellar tendon in his left knee (2017) on his résumé, so he's about as assured as is Paddack of facing some sort of modest limit.
Frankie Montas, Oakland Athletics: He has shuffled between the rotation and bullpen throughout his young Athletics career, so it should come as no surprise that he has never exceeded 136 2/3 (2018) innings. Montas' improved control and newfound splitter have made him quite the fantasy breakthrough story, but he's unlikely to be afforded the full 182 innings for which he's on pace -- that would represent a 45 1/3 inning jump. The Athletics do have the duo of Jharel Cotton and Sean Manaea on the comeback trail, with either or both pitchers potentially available to ease the strain on Montas' arm in the second half.
Brandon Woodruff, Milwaukee Brewers: He has a 158 inning season (2016) on his professional résumé, not to mention four consecutive seasons of 109 2/3-plus frames. That said, Woodruff's current 185 inning pace still seems unsustainable. His shift from rotation to bullpen to rotation during the past calendar year, along with his extended 2018 due to the Brewers playoff exploits (he threw 12 1/3 postseason frames) probably puts him on their radar as someone whose workload should be kept in check. Remember, manager Craig Counsell is not afraid to use "openers" to fill starts, and the team might be in the trade hunt for a veteran starter to ease Woodruff's workload come July.
In addition, 13 other pitchers came up during my research as potential innings-cap candidates. Here's a look at the profile of all 22 "cap candidates."