The Padres have given away leads late in games on several occasions this season, with the bullpen crumbling under pressure. How can that be remedied?
Twice in the span of two games in three days, the Padres were either tied or had the lead late only to watch things completely unravel at the hands of its bullpen. This is somewhat foreign territory in San Diego as the Friars’ strength has consistently been their bullpen. 2019’s version currently ranks 19th in bullpen ERA, and that is with Kirby Yates putting up video game-like numbers that should make him an All-Star. The bullpen ranked sixth-best in baseball last season for bullpen ERA and was second in all the league in bullpen FIP.
Now it’s 2019, and the bullpen needs fixing. Adam Warren is 15th-worst in baseball with a 6.84 FIP and second-to-last in WAR with -0.8. Craig Stammen is right behind (or ahead?) of him with -0.7 WAR, third worst in baseball. Brad Wieck and Phil Maton have been up and down with the team and Triple-A and both own ERAs north of 5.50.
San Diego has 12 blown saves this year as a bullpen, which is the seventh-most in the league.
Let’s explore some ways this unit can improve in a season where they are still within shouting distance of a Wild Card spot.
Continue to dip in the minor leagues
The Padres have called on several rookies this season in the bullpen, namely Trey Wingenter, Gerardo Reyes, Robert Stock, and Wieck. There are still a few options down on the farm that could help the ballclub this season. First, Andres Munoz will not be held down for long. He was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A after posting a 1.72 ERA with over 18 strikeouts per nine innings in 15 appearances. So far in Triple-A, it has been much of the same with a slightly higher ERA. If he can even out his numbers in Triple-A, he should be in the Padres bullpen in short order. There may not be a single pitcher in the minor leagues anywhere that can match his velocity and strikeout-potential.
Aside from Munoz, there are several other options possible. Eric Yardley has a 2.86 ERA in 25 appearances for Triple-A El Paso this season, with 1.8 walks per nine innings. However, like most of these minor league possibilities, Yardley is not on the 40-man roster and would require a major roster move to be placed in San Diego’s bullpen. Kyle McGrath remains down in Triple-A, but he has 21 major league games under his belt with a career 3.13 ERA in those games. He has been used as a starter in his last four outings for El Paso so he may be being groomed for a spot start.
Adrian Morejon is rumored to be making a big jump soon out of Double-A. The 20-year-old Cuban has struggled to stay healthy, but when he is, it’s clear why he is ranked as the 43rd-best prospect in all of baseball. He has posted 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings in nine starts for Double-A Amarillo. He may soon be promoted and could even find himself in a limited role in the Padres bullpen before too long.
Injuries can derail any team, and the Padres bullpen was hit hard. Jose Castillo made a strong debut in 2018, posting a 3.29 ERA with over 12 strikeouts per nine innings in 38 innings pitched. Unfortunately, he landed on the 60-day injured list with a forearm strain. He recently started a rehab assignment with Lake Elsinore, and the Padres hope to have him back very soon, maybe even next month. Castillo at full strength would be an instant boost to this ‘pen.
Brett Kennedy made his big league debut late last season with mixed results as a starter. After six starts, he had a 6.75 ERA while walking over four batters per nine innings. He is on the shelf with arm fatigue, but recent reports indicate he could return after the All-Star break. It may be wishful thinking, but if he can come back strong, perhaps the Padres insert him into the bullpen or even take a few spot starts to stay the ticking time bomb that is innings limits of some of the Padres’ starters.
Hope for improvement
The Friars could take the simple approach of hoping some guys snap out of it and pitch better, pitch like they have previously. Stammen was fantastic last season, with a 2.73 ERA and 2.2 WAR in 73 appearances, with a 2.19 FIP. He has greatly regressed this season, striking out almost half of the batters he did in 2018 with nearly double the ERA. At 35, with a career 3.70 ERA, one would think he could return to form but on the other hand, this may be Father Time rearing his ugly head. He has appeared in nearly 400 games over ten seasons.
Stock had a strong showing in his first 32 games of big league action last year, with a 2.50 ERA and 2.71 FIP while fanning more than ten batters per nine innings. Perhaps due to the league adjusting or a loss in confidence, Stock struggled mightily in his brief seven games this year, with a bloated 9.00 ERA, being over half of a win worse according to WAR this year. Somehow, some way, if Stock finds it again, it will be a sight for sore eyes in San Diego.
Quite simply, the Padres have an extremely young pitching staff, and they could patiently wait, and hope, that some of these young guys like Wieck and Maton get better over time as they gain experience.
Make a trade
Likely the most popular and effective option is to swing a trade for a quality big league reliever. Usually it’s the Padres who are the ones wheeling and dealing relievers like trading cards, but with the team hovering near .500, clearly showing improvement on the last five-plus years, it’s time to add, not subtract, in that bullpen. First and foremost, that means holding onto Yates, the only sure-fire All-Star the Friars have at this point.
There will be several options for trades as the hard July 31st deadline looms. Unfortunately, just about every World Series contender could use a boost in the bullpen, but no team has the prospect firepower the Padres have to make a deal, giving them an advantage, if they so choose.
Let’s look at some possible trade options.
The Friars just saw Smith shut them down for a save in the Padres’ 6-5 loss to the Giants on Tuesday night. At age 29 and now in his seventh big league season, the lefty would be one of the more experienced yet still effective options out there. He owns a stifling 2.10 ERA and has 15 saves. There is this one little thing about making a trade with a division rival. Do the Padres want to give the Giants legitimate prospects? However, with Smith being a free agent at the end of this season, he shouldn’t cost a lot and perhaps the Padres should be picky given the fact they are not exactly a World Series favorite at this point.
The fireballer lefty Diekman put up some impressive numbers when he was with the Texas Rangers for parts of four seasons, with a 3.18 ERA and strong 144 ERA+ in 150 games over that span. He is likely more of an attractive asset than Smith given that he has one more year of control after this season at a reasonable price, a $5.75 million mutual option with his current team, the Royals. Thus, he would cost more, but with a career 3.78 ERA and 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings, he would instantly make the Padres bullpen better for this year and the next.
Givens is part of the worst team in baseball, the Baltimore Orioles. He has a 4.82 ERA, but his track record indicates he should come back down to earth, and what better place to pitch to deflate numbers than at Petco Park? Before this season, he had a career 3.12 ERA with a 138 ERA+ in 56 games over parts of three seasons. He is also under control through the 2022 season, giving the Padres this season and three more with his services. With the weaker numbers this year, the Padres could dictate a price that better suits them. With a wipe-out slider and mid-90s fastball, he would be an excellent setup man for Yates.
The cheapest and least-risky option listed may be Hernandez. His numbers are not stellar in Cincinnati this season with a 4.80 ERA. However, his 2.45 FIP would indicate he has had a string of bad luck, which is unsurprising given the fact that he pitches at a hitter’s paradise at Great American Ballpark, which has the second-highest home run rate of any ballpark in the league. Hernandez would be more of a band-aid at this point as he is a free agent after this season and is 34 years old. However, he pitched for five seasons with the Diamondbacks and is very familiar with the N.L. West and he owns a career 3.89 ERA and an above-average 109 career ERA+. The Padres could acquire Hernandez without giving up any prospects they see as part of the future in San Diego.