After an impressive 89-win season that saw the team win its most games in a season since 2010, the San Diego Padres will still be going into every postseason series as a sizable underdog.
It’s not improbable to imagine that the Padres would have to beat four 100+ win teams to achieve their ultimate goal.
The Padres’ October run starts with the New York Mets, a team that won 101 games in the regular season and looks poised to make a deep playoff run of their own even after squandering a late lead in the NL East. While the Mets have notable firepower in starting pitchers Max Scherzer (named Game 1 starter for Friday night) and Jacob deGrom, the Mets are a matchup nightmare for any opposing offense. Not to mention closer Edwin Diaz is having a historically good season and will undoubtedly be a big factor late in games.
However, the Padres are among the few teams with the talent and capability to neutralize the Mets’ vaunted pitching staff. Similar to New York, the Padres have ace-caliber starting pitching. Yu Darvish will counter Scherzer and get the start for the Padres in Game 1, coming off a season that saw him claim 16 wins and, most recently, the NL Pitcher of the Month in September. In his last five starts, Darvish has thrown to a 2.25 ERA in 32 innings to go with 35 strikeouts. The Padres will have to hope that he and fellow rotation mates Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove (the Padres presumed Game 2 and Game 3 starters) can provide equally dominant performances and send the Padres to their second NLDS appearance in the past three years.
What may set the Padres apart from the Mets is the depth of their bullpen. Though Diaz has converted 32 of 35 saves this season and boasts a 1.35 ERA, the Padres have multiple pieces that could legitimately be deployed late in games to get to Josh Hader (who owns a 0.87 ERA since September 1 and is 7-for-8 in save chances).
As a group, the Padres have the sixth-highest fWAR among relievers in the MLB this season, at 6.6. They also rank 5th in the National League this season with a 3.83 ERA among their relievers. What’s more is that Padres relievers have thrown the 3rd fewest innings in the league in 2022, a stark turnaround from a 2021 team that saw a taxed bullpen collapse down the stretch. A winning formula in the postseason could very well start with a well-rested group of relievers.
While the Padres will undoubtedly let Darvish throw as deep as he can in Game 1, it’s feasible to expect a shorter leash with Snell and (potentially) Musgrove in Games 2 and 3. The Padres have the luxury of being able to count on multiple relievers for more than one inning, should they choose to do so.
Besides Hader, expect the Padres to lean heavily on Robert Suarez as a bridge from the starter to the back end. Making his stateside debut this season after pitching professionally in Mexico and Japan since 2015, Suarez closed his first season with the Padres with a 13.1-inning scoreless streak that extends to the end of August. His high-octane fastball will be ever amplified in the postseason, where velocity and “stuff” matter more than in the regular season. He could also be deployed against right-handed and left-handed batters, posting similar xWOBA splits against each side according to Fangraphs (.268 vs. LHH, .259 vs. RHH).
It’s unknown how many pitchers the Padres will carry on their Wild Card Series roster, but the number is anticipated to be between 12 and 13. After the three starting pitchers, that leaves room to maneuver with the rest of the roster. It’s unknown whether Mike Clevinger will make the roster, either as an emergency starter or long reliever, after being placed on the IL with an illness before Wednesday’s game against the Giants. Clevinger is expected to travel to New York on Thursday night and meet the team for Friday’s game, according to Bally Sports San Diego’s Bob Scanlan.
If Clevinger does make the roster, it could leave the final bullpen spot up to Lefties Adrian Morejon and Sean Manaea. While the team may prefer Morejon’s upper 90s velocity and pure stuff, he has struggled as of late. Conversely, Manaea has shown he may be rounding into form after allowing only one earned run over his past ten innings. Both are capable of throwing more than one inning and can be used in a variety of situations.
If the Padres can make it past the Mets and deeper into October, the importance of the bullpen will only be heightened. Matchups will prove to be more important, and leashes on starting pitchers will shrink.
With an offense that has shown signs of life and statistically plays better on the road (which they’ll be doing a lot of if they make a deep run), the Padres have the core pieces to be a sleeper team in the 2022 Postseason. It won’t matter if their bullpen doesn’t meet its heightened expectations.