A comprehensive breakdown of the San Diego Padres bullpen heading into the 2021 regular season.
The San Diego Padres are the talk of the baseball world, literally. They stole the show in the COVID-19 shortened season in 2020 and made headlines with the “Slam Diego” slogan. And Fernando Tatis Jr. became the face of the league and the latest MLB The Show video game.
Dinelson Lamet merited Cy Young attention, and Mike Clevinger came to America’s Finest City in another A.J. Preller fanfare at the deadline. The Padres made the playoffs, beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
We know all that. Furthermore, everybody knows that Preller went absolutely nuts and acquired Blake Snell and Yu Darvish in a matter of months. He brought over Ha-Seong Kim from Korea to add another talented infielder to the equation and acquired Joe Musgrove to finish out the backend of the rotation.
None of that is breaking news, however. The Padres have one of the best lineups in baseball, and after signing Tatis to a 14-year deal, he and Manny Machado will be the offensive fixtures at Petco Park for the rest of the decade.
The bullpen, oddly enough, was a disappointment last season after being pegged as one of the best groups in the majors before the start of the 2020 season. With spring training in full force, there are some questions around the bullpen group, a group that has way too much talent for not enough spots, unfortunately.
Let’s start with the returning players from last year’s squad.
Dan Altavilla and Austin Adams, who was acquired in the trade from the Seattle Mariners, should be set in stone as far as the bullpen is concerned. Adams has filthy stuff and only pitched in three games last season due to injury, but make no mistake; he can hurl it.
Altavilla became a fan favorite and is a hit in the Twitter universe with Padres faithful, and while some have him missing out on a roster spot, it seems highly likely that he’s in the bullpen when Opening Day rolls around.
Craig Stammen had his struggles in 2020, and many wanted to see him go. His season was bad, really bad, actually. Stammen finished the year with a 5.63 ERA in just 24 games and received much criticism for his poor performance. However, 2020 was a strange year, especially for pitchers, and he’s been a staple in the Padres pen since 2017, which means he should be back in 2021 despite some unforeseen circumstance or a Preller package that includes him.
Matt Strahm is battling injury but should be ready to go by the opener or shortly after. Pierce Johnson pitched well last season and is an essential lock to make the team again. Jose Castillo is another option as a hard-throwing southpaw out of the pen. Still, like Strahm, he is recovering from injury, and both of those guys have serious injury history that might scare the Padres away in the end.
Drew Pomeranz and Emilio Pagan are the there incumbents who are guaranteed a sot, which is obvious. What’s not obvious s what their role is going to be, and before we get ahead of ourselves, let’s talk about the closer situation.
Closer, What’s That?
The position players are set except for a couple, but the bullpen is where the competition will be at the highest in Arizona. These guys want to compete, and the fact that the Padres have legitimate World Series hopes makes them want to battle it out even more.
Here’s the problem, and it’s a good one. The Padres have four options to choose from when it comes to selecting a closer. The more, the merrier, and Jayce Tingler will get his money’s worth finding a way to manage this bullpen, especially in the last inning of games.
In a way, it’s Drew’s job to lose. Kirby Yates got hurt last season with bone chips, and it forced the Padres to lean on Pomeranz to finish games, something he did rather efficiently after Preller got blasted for the contract he gave Pom in the offseason. Albeit, the Padres eventually went out and grabbed Trevor Rosenthal in a trade and watched Rosenthal head up north to Oakland in the offseason.
Drew Pomeranz, Filthy 85mph Knuckle Curve…and, on appeal, Sword. ⚔️ pic.twitter.com/9x716kanau
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) July 29, 2020
Pomeranz lived up to the hype, finishing the year with four saves and nine holds with a stunning 1.45 ERA, and became Tingler’s favorite option out of the pen.
Pagan notched a pair of saves but struggled in other regards and ended up with a 4.50 ERA. Again, take that as you will; Pagan has dangerous stuff when it’s on point.
Huge get for the #Padres. Emilio Pagan has got some serious stuff.
Ranks among qualified relievers in 2019:
• 6th-most saves in AL
• 11th-highest ERA+
• 13th-most strikeouts
• 96 strikeouts, 21 walks in 70 IP pic.twitter.com/G3R1nZCRjV
— Danny Vietti (@DannyVietti) February 9, 2020
Now, the two new faces and Preller’s latest additions., Kela and Melancon. Let’s start with Kela, who sunned everybody by changing his Instagram bio before anything was official and made Padres fans run around in circles in excitement and anxiety.
Another former Texas Ranger, which isn’t a surprise. He made just three appearances for the Pittsburgh Pirates last year after having two consecutive seasons of a sub-3 ERA in a Pirates uniform. However, his best season came as a Ranger in 2018 when he posted 24 saves in 38 games with three wins before being sent to the Pirates mid-season. Kela also has nasty stuff, and is the perfect closer type of player, and comes as a low-risk, high-reward signing by Preller.
If the Phillies are looking for affordable, high ceiling relief talent, they should look no further than Keone Kela.
Kela has battled injury over his career, but whenever he’s healthy, he’s utterly dominant.
Still just 27 years old.
Career: 3.24 ERA, 216.2 IP, 266K, 1.12 WHIP pic.twitter.com/4aK5MAFzob
— Alex Carr (@AlexCarrMLB) January 22, 2021
Let’s move on to Melancon. A 13-year vet who has bounced around the league and has been one of the more consistent closers anywhere he’s been. He had 20 saves in a Houston Astros uniform in 2011, 30, 33, and 51 in a few successful years with the Pirates, and posted back-to-back 11-save season in just 23 games for the Atlanta Braves in each of the past two years. Oh, and just watch this pitch that he throws, which is nearly impossible to hit.
Mark Melancon, Wicked 82mph Knuckle Curve. 🤢 pic.twitter.com/A3rDMBYKgp
— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) October 4, 2019
Melancon might be the favorite of the group to be the closer at the start of the year, although Tingler has many options as far as how to close out games. He could go, Pom, Kela, Melancon, or even Kela, Pagan, Pom, Pagan, Pom, Kela, or any combination of those four and give opposing teams nightmares.
He could decide to play the matchup game, and one thing’s certain, Tingler will surprise a lot of people in how he manages the bullpen, especially with all this talent. The biggest question of camp is who the closer will be, and as far as everything is concerned, nobody knows.
The other arms in the bullpen have the talent, and it’s very possible that one of them sneak in, especially if Preller continues the trading bonanza he’s been on of late.
Michel Baez has been pegged as a possible long-relief type, as has Adrian Morejon, although the latter seems more likely due to his success last year. Javy Guerra, the transition shortstop, showed flashes of promise but needs a bit more work before seeing regular action at the big league level.
Taylor Williams was acquired via trade, and Trey Wingenter might return in the middle of the year as he rehabs his injury. Ryan Weathers made a surprising appearance in the stretch run and gave Padres fans immense hope as a star option in a couple of years to pair with Mackenzie Gore. Anderson Espinoza is still floating around with potential despite the lingering injuries he has had.
All in all, the bullpen group is extremely crowded, and it will be very interesting to see how Preller and Tingler decide to handle this situation as opening day approaches. One thing’s certain: the Padres have a loaded roster in all facets.
Matthew Wadleigh, born in Oceanside and currently lives in Fresno. He lives with his wife and 2 dogs and is a sports enthusiast. Retired drummer and member of the Fresno State Marching Band. He has been a Padres fan since childhood and has suffered during the struggles just like everybody else.