The Padres have lost a handful of games after leading late due to collapses by the bullpen.
For a franchise that has not won a championship and, frankly, struggles to make the playoffs consistently, there is one thing you could almost always count on with the San Diego Padres – a strong bullpen.
When the 2022 season started, most assumed the offense would be the team’s biggest hole, specifically in the outfield. Fernando Tatis Jr.’s absence loomed over the start of the season, thinning out the lineup. Then Jurickson Profar got off to a hot start and is currently tied for the team lead with five home runs.
The Padres rank fourth in runs scored and 10th in team wRC+. While they are not torching pitchers right and left every night, the bats have been far from the biggest weakness on the team.
That belongs to the bullpen.
Most assumed the Padres would just roll out a solid bullpen like they do year after year. Since 2018, the Padres rank eighth in the league in bullpen ERA, including fifth last season.
It has been a different story this year, right from Opening Day. To open the season in Arizona, the Padres squandered a 2-0 lead in the bottom of the ninth, allowing four runs in a walk-off loss to the Diamondbacks.
After the collapse in the second game of Wednesday’s doubleheader against Cleveland, the Padres bullpen currently ranks 26th in ERA.
Bob Melvin’s squad has several relievers that are currently struggling. Tim Hill is a prime example of the current bullpen situation. Last year, he was an effective lefty that was heavily used to the tune of 78 appearances. He posted a 3.62 ERA and 108 ERA+ with 8.4 strikeouts-per-nine-innings. His ERA has ballooned to 11.12 over nine games this season, and he has just one strikeout among 29 batters faced.
Robert Suarez was the victim on opening night against Arizona and was charged for three earned runs without recording an out before Craig Stammen allowed the walk-off home run. He still struggles with allowing baserunners, with an above-league-average 4.9 walks-per-nine-innings and a 4.91 ERA.
Craig Stammen, who has been a staple in San Diego’s bullpen for the better part of six seasons, is off to a tough start. In nine games, he has a 4.15 ERA and a 4.60 FIP.
Dinelson Lamet’s fall from grace has been shocking. In 2020, he finished fourth in Cy Young voting. He has lost his pinpoint control following an elbow injury and a 2021 season slogging through rehabbing that elbow. He owns a 5.40 ERA and walks 5.4 batters per nine innings.
The bullpen ranks 28th in home runs allowed per nine innings and is allowing the fourth-highest hard contact rate in the league.
This weakness could torpedo the Padres’ plans for a deep run into October this year. A leaky bullpen is one of the quickest ways to fade out of contention. As of now, the Padres have weathered the storm, going 16-9, just one game out of first place in the NL West. That has been with stellar production from the starting rotation and some timely hits. Odds are, they will need to rely on their bullpen when their offense and starting pitching go through slumps. As of now, that is a scary thought.
How can this be rectified? The bright side is that the bullpen has thrown the third-least amount of innings of any bullpen unit in the league. This bullpen is not overworked. There are plenty of names in the bullpen that have proven track records of success, like Hill, Lamet, and Stammen, who may see their numbers even out over time. The team may need to continue to ride the starting rotation, hoping they keep on this trend of quality starts.
Manager Bob Melvin has done an admirable job thus far navigating the pitching staff. Even so, some of the moves have not worked out. However, certain situations started with clear advantages on paper, but the result did not bounce San Diego’s way for one reason or another.
There are reasons for hope. Luis Garcia is proving to be a savvy acquisition at 35 years old. He owns a 2.35 ERA and 1.53 FIP in eight games. Look for him to get more action in high-leverage situations moving forward.
A big bright spot thus far has been the newly acquired closer, Taylor Rogers. He is yet to be charged with an earned run in 11 appearances, 10 of them being for saves, tied for the National League lead.
Reinforcements may also aid the situation.
Lefty Jose Castillo has made four scoreless appearances for Lake Elsinore in his rehab assignment. Eventually, he could return to the fold. He struck out 12.2 batters per nine innings in 37 appearances for San Diego in 2018 before a horrible run of injuries.
Pierce Johnson is on the injured list and has not yet started a rehab assignment. His return would be most welcome.
Michel Baez also began a rehab stint with Lake Elsinore, tossing two scoreless innings last week.
If this problem continues, it may be up to A.J. Preller to swing a deal and bolster the bullpen. If the Padres continue to lose games after having leads late, he may not have a choice if he wants to save the season.