While there is quite a bit of uncertainty surrounding the San Diego Padres’ starting rotation, the bullpen may be an area of strength for the club in 2017.
The rotation may not feature a host of known inning-eaters, but at least it appears that there will be a competent relief corps to hold the staff up.
One of the most encouraging decisions that the team made during the off-season was to hold onto pretty much their entire bullpen from 2016; a group that was as fun to watch as they were effective. This spring training is like all the rest; there are some incumbent players (and one newcomer) who seem like a lock for the back-end of the bullpen, while there are others who are fiercely battling it out for the remaining spots. Here’s a breakdown of how the bullpen candidates are factoring in spring training so far:
To begin with the strengths; there are four players who should make up the back-end of the bullpen come opening day. Ryan Buchter is a LHP who was a career minor leaguer until last season at the age of 29, when he posted a 2.86 ERA in 63 innings pitched for the Padres. He was really phenomenal in the first half of the season with a 2.61 ERA, but fatigue got to him a little bit in the second half as his ERA went up to 3.24. He did post an impressively low WHIP of .840 in the second half. His success has been somewhat attributed to the crazy spin rate on his fastball.
Along with Buchter is fellow LHP, Brad Hand. He was DFA’d by the Miami Marlins in the opening week of 2016 and promptly snatched up by the Friars. He posted a 2.92 ERA on the season with a 1.11 WHIP and 11.2 K/9 with 21 holds in 89.1 innings, while leading the N.L. with 82 appearances. Buchter and Hand were, without question, two of the most dominant left-handed relievers in the league in 2016. They both served as solid setup men throughout the season, which is conceivably how they will factor into the 2017 bullpen.
RHP Brandon Maurer will return as a staple of the pen. What his role will be is the real question. He ended the season as the closer after Fernando Rodney was traded at the deadline. On the season, he posted a 4.52 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP. He struggled at times in the first half of the season, but after fixing his slider and ditching his changeup, he posted a 3.10 ERA in the second half and recorded 13 saves. Can he hold onto his job as the closer? That’s what remains to be seen.
If anybody is going to give Maurer a run for his money it’s probably going to be the newcomer, RHP, Carter Capps. He came over as part of the Andrew Cashner trade last season. Capps didn’t pitch at all in 2016 as he was recovering from Tommy John surgery. In 2015, however, Capps was dominant. In 31 innings pitched, he posted a 1.16 ERA and an .806 WHIP. He’s best known for his eccentric delivery style which is good for faking batters out. It appears MLB is putting a rule in place to legitimize his hop-drag delivery once and for all. By opening day he should be good to go.
Following that corps of no-doubters, RHP Kevin Quackenbush seems like another player highly likely to make the opening day roster. He’s been a consistent arm out of the pen for the Padres since 2014. Each of the past three seasons he’s pitched over 50 innings of relief. In 2016 he posted a 3.92 ERA and a 1.291 WHIP. He even recorded two saves. His curveball is beautiful.
RHP Miguel Diaz was the number one overall pick in the 2016 Rule-5 Draft. He’s only 22 years old, but as a Rule-5 player, he has to stay on the 25-man roster all season long. With his incredible upside, the Padres are likely to try to keep him stashed in the bullpen even though he’s considered more of a starter than a reliever.
Buddy Baumann, Jose Torres, and Keith Hessler are all three LHPs on the 40-man roster. They each saw limited time with the Padres in 2016. They are likely to compete for a remaining lefty slot in the bullpen.
There are a few guys in the mix for the starting rotation who may not make the cut and end up in the pen as possible long relievers. RHP Trevor Cahill made a strong case for himself on March 1, in his spring training debut, posting one walk, three strikeouts, and 20 strikes in 31 pitches over two innings. In 2016, as a reliever with the world champion Chicago Cubs, he posted a 2.74 ERA with a 1.279 WHIP in 65.2 innings.
RHP Jhoulys Chacin is very likely to make the rotation, as a major incentive of his signing with the Padres was the opportunity to start. On February 28, in his spring training debut, he posted one walk, two strikeouts, two hits, and one earned run on 31 pitches over two innings. Although Chacin’s goal is to break the rotation, his numbers last season were better as a reliever. In 28.2 innings of relief he posted a 3.77 ERA with a 1.22 WHIP and a 29.4 K% versus a 5.07 ERA with a 1.50 WHIP and a 16.4 K% in 114.6 innings as a starter. He could be an effective addition to an already solid Padres’ bullpen if that’s where he lands. Along with Cahill and Chacin, Christian Friedrich, Paul Clemens, Jared Cosart, Tyrell Jenkins, Zach Lee, and Clayton Richard are potential long relief candidates if they do end up being bumped from the rotation. It’s likely that Luis Perdomo and Cesar Vargas will end up in triple-A if they don’t make the rotation.
Christian Bethancourt is probably the most interesting player in baseball right now. He’s attempting to play a hybrid role on the team, splitting time behind the dish, in the outfield, and as a pitcher. On March 1, he had his spring training debut on the mound. He threw 11 pitches, seven for strikes, including a ground out, a fly out, and a line out. His fastball hit 96 a couple of times and he showed some variety of pitches with a sinker. He’s also working on a slider and a changeup. He had also already pitched some innings in Panamanian winter ball during the off-season. If he sticks as a pitcher, among his other duties, he could give the Padres the unique ability to carry eight relief pitchers. His contribution could save arms for the bullpen on a consistent basis.
The remaining bullpen candidates are non-roster invitees; they include: RHP Logan Bawcom, RHP Jon Edwards, RHP Carlos Fisher, RHP Aroni Nina, and RHP Craig Stammen. LHP Kyle McGrath, RHP Jason Jester, LHP Brad Wieck, and RHP Phil Maton were all 2016 Pacific Coast League champions with the El Paso Chihuahuas. These, among a handful of others, are all competing for the outside chance at one or two of the remaining bullpen spots. It will be very interesting to see how this deep pool of candidates materializes into the bullpen come opening day.