If the San Diego Padres have had one consistency about their roster in the past ten years, it’s a strong bullpen.
Since the days of Trevor Hoffman, the Padres roster has been a revolving door of successful relievers. Heath Bell, Huston Street, Brad Hand, Kirby Yates, Trevor Rosenthal, and Mark Melancon have all carved out successful stints at the backend of the Padres bullpen, so who will take the mound in the ninth inning this year?
The answer to that question is perhaps less clear than it has been in years because, as it stands, the Padres will enter 2022 without a clear-cut closing pitcher.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily as bad as it may seem at first glance, as the bullpen is the most unpredictable position in all of baseball. The aforementioned Brad Hand and Kirby Yates both came to the Padres as waiver claims, and both were transformed into dominant closers by the time their tenures were up. In more recent memory, names like Devin Williams, Garrett Whitlock, and Kendall Graveman had become prolific relief pitchers seemingly out of nowhere. It is entirely possible that the Padres have a hidden gem among their bullpen options, waiting to be unleashed upon an unsuspecting league.
The Padres also don’t necessarily have to set a closer either.
The Tampa Bay Rays, for example, usually value matchups over who traditionally gets what inning, a practice that may have saved the 2021 Padres from some of the many eighth inning blunders of Emilio Pagan in his epic September collapse. The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants dabbled with this strategy as well, giving some of their tougher closing assignments to Blake Treinen and Camilo Doval, despite Kenley Jansen and Tyler Rogers being the respective “closers” on the team.
This strategy could be beneficial to the Padres depending on the opposing team’s lineup. Hypothetically, let’s say someone like Robert Suarez or Luis Garcia is having an amazing year as the Padres usual closer. Still, in a close game, the opposing team has their best three hitters coming up in the eighth inning. In that scenario, it might make more sense for the Padres to deploy their best pitcher to face that part of the lineup and give the easier lineup assignment in the ninth inning to someone like Pierce Johnson.
Either way, the Padres have plenty of bullpen options going into the 2022 season, so let’s take a look at some arms they could use on the Opening Day roster.
Robert Suarez | Throws: Right | 6-foot-2/210 pounds
2021 Stats (in Japan): 62.1 IP, 1.16 ERA, 0.77 WHIP, 5.8 H/9, 0.0 HR/9, 1.2 BB/9, 8.4 K/9
If there is a current favorite for the Padres closer role, it would have to be newcomer Robert Suarez. A surprising MLB holdout, Suarez dominated Japan in the 2021 season, recording 42 saves for the Hanshin Tigers to the tune of a 1.16 ERA. Suarez throws a blistering fastball that can reach 100-101 mph regularly and pairs this pitch with a plus changeup that sits around 90 mph.
Suarez has remarkable command for someone who throws such high velocity, only handing out eight walks in 62 appearances last year. While Suarez surprisingly doesn’t miss bats as much as one would expect, only recording 8.4 K/9 in 2021, he made up for this by not allowing hard contact and limiting baserunners with a 5.8 H/9 and 1.2 BB/9 for an outstanding 0.77 WHIP.
Perhaps most significantly, Suarez is excellent at limiting home runs, with a career 0.6 HR/9 in Japan. He reached an even higher level of success with this in 2020 and 2021, allowing no home runs last year and only allowing two home runs the year prior.
Suarez, at his best, should remind Padres fans of 2020 closer Trevor Rosenthal. A hard-throwing right-hander that pounds the zone and challenges hitters with fastballs. Suarez appears to be a lock for a late-inning role for the Padres in 2022.
Luis Garcia | Throws: Right | 6-foot-2/240 pounds
2021 Stats: 33.1 IP, 3.24 ERA, 2.70 FIP, 0.99 WHIP, 6.8 H/9, 0.5 HR/9, 2.2 BB/9, 9.2 K/9
The other hard-throwing right-hander signed by the Padres, Garcia, had seen previous success on the Phillies, including a very good 2017 campaign. However, this was followed by three lackluster seasons in which he bounced around between the Angels, Rangers, and Yankees organizations before finally landing with the Cardinals.
The Cardinals suggested Garcia use his sinker more instead of his four-seam fastball, and what resulted was arguably the most dominant stint of Garcia’s career. Garcia regularly sat 98-100 mph with good late movement on his sinker and generated plenty of strikeouts with a plus slider in the mid to high 80s.
The most noticeable improvement Garcia saw in 2021 was his command. Walks had been a problem in Garcia’s career before, but his improved command saw him post career bests with a 2.2 BB/9 and a 0.99 WHIP, as compared to his career 4.5 BB/9 and 1.478 WHIP.
While it may be a bit of a risky signing, Garcia’s tangible improvements and high octane pitch mix would be fantastic if he can continue to pitch the way he did as a Cardinal. They should the 2021 version of Garcia return for 2022. He would be another leading candidate for the Padres closer job.
Drew Pomeranz | Throws: Left | 6-foot-5/246 pounds
2021 Stats: 25.2 IP, 1.75 ERA, 3.01 FIP, 1.130 WHIP, 6.7 H/9, 0.7 HR/9, 3.5 BB/9, 10.5 K/9
Injuries and a high-paying contract aside, Drew Pomeranz has been absolutely dominant so far during his return to the Padres, posting a sub-two ERA in the two short stints he’s been healthy. Pomeranz’s season ended early with a torn flexor tendon in August, but there’s a good chance he will be ready for Opening Day.
Pomeranz throws a fastball that sits anywhere from 92-97 mph and pairs it with a devastating mid-80s knuckle curveball. While not being the best at limiting walks, Pomeranz tends to limit the damage by staying out of the middle of the zone. Pomeranz is also able to limit base hits and strike out plenty of batters, as exemplified by his excellent H/9 and K/9 since being converted to a reliever in late 2019.
The results don’t lie with Pomeranz, and if he can stay healthy, he should be one of the best left-handed relievers in baseball and the Padres top left-handed option in 2022.
Pierce Johnson | Throws: Right | 6-foot-2/202 pounds
2021 Stats: 58.2 IP, 3.22 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 1.261 WHIP, 7.2 H/9, 0.9 HR/9, 4.1 BB/9, 11.8 K/9
I would argue that this is A.J. Preller’s most underrated signing ever. Pierce Johnson was signed to a cheap two-year deal with a team option after completely dominating in Japan, and he has not disappointed so far. Outside of Drew Pomeranz and Craig Stammen (who I’ll get to later), Johnson enters 2022 as the best reliever from last year’s team, a fact that is often overlooked.
Johnson may have a high walk rate but can limit hard contact and has an impressive 11.9 K/9 in his two years in San Diego. Johnson leans heavily on his 83-87 mph curveball and pairs it with a 94-97 mph sinker, often pitching backward by throwing off-speed early to set up his fastball. This strategy has been successful thus far as Johnson owns a respectable 3.09 ERA and 3.26 FIP in 78.2 IP as a Padre the past two seasons.
While Johnson likely won’t be a leading candidate for the closer spot in 2022, he should definitely be used regularly in the seventh and eighth innings next year.
Tim Hill | Throws: Left | 6-foot-4/200 pounds
2021 Stats: 59.2 IP, 3.62 ERA, 4.71 FIP, 1.24 WHIP, 7.7 H/9, 1.4 HR/9, 3.5 BB/9, 8.4 K/9
Tim Hill was great in early 2021. He seemingly worked his way out of a bunch of high leverage spots and carried a 1.42 ERA into May. After that, Hill wasn’t nearly as dominant, and his ERA ballooned after an abysmal month of August. Still, despite a not-so-great looking 4.71 FIP, Hill returns as one of the Padres’ primary left-handed options for 2022.
Hill throws an 89-94 mph fastball and pairs it with a nice slider that sits 83-87 mph. Hill’s low release point and mechanics can effectively mess with the timing of hitters at the plate, making his lower velocity fastball seem harder than it actually is. It’s fair to say that Hill wasn’t used as effectively as he could’ve been last year and should have faced fewer right-handed hitters in 2021. Hill faced a near-even split of right-handers and left-handers last season, coming out with a .798 OPS vs. the right-handers and a drastically lower.621 OPS vs. the left-handers.
The lefty will likely fill a middle relief role for the Padres in 2022, and hopefully, he’ll be used more in the role of a left-handed specialist that his numbers suggest he is very suited for.
Emilio Pagan | Throws: Right | 6-foot-2/208 pounds
2021 Stats: 63.1 IP, 4.83 ERA, 5.22 FIP, 1.168 WHIP, 8.0 H/9, 2.3 HR/9, 2.6 BB/9, 9.8 K/9
Albert Einstein was believed to have once said, “insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result.” Had Albert Einstein been alive in 2021 and had a rudimentary knowledge of baseball, he probably would’ve considered the Padres’ usage of Emilio Pagan late in the 2021 season a superb example of insanity.
Until September and October of last year, Pagan had been fine in his eighth-inning role and sported an ERA under four. Now, many will reference the soon-to-be-mentioned Austin Adams’s epic collapse this year, but as far as I’m concerned, his collapse doesn’t hold a candle to the collapse of Pagan. Brace yourself for this because it is absolutely shocking. The following and Emilio Pagan’s numbers in his final 11 appearances of 2021: 9.0 IP, 14 H, 14 ERs, 7 HRs, 4 BBs, and 6 Ks, which resulted in a WHIP of 2.00 and an ERA of, get this, 14.00. Even worse, opponents hit .350/.400/.975/.1375 off of him in this span. Oddly enough, during this eleven-game stretch, Pagan was rolled out in the seventh inning once, the ninth inning twice, and the eighth eight times. Perhaps Pagan shouldn’t have kept his high leverage spot.
Pagan throws a fastball with good spin in the 94-97 mph range, and he pairs it with a cutter/slider that sits 84-88 mph. Pagan is usually able to locate his pitches well and, as a result, can be very effective. Pagan limits baserunners to a 1.168 WHIP and strikes out plenty of batters with a 9.8 K/10. Pagan’s high ERA and FIP both stem from one thing: home runs. Pagan’s posted an absurdly high 2.3 HR/9 in 2021, significantly higher than his career HR/9 of 1.7. Finding a way to limit home runs will be the key for an improved Pagan in 2022.
Emilio Pagan should be a candidate to see middle relief work for the 2022 San Diego Padres, and hopefully, they’ll have learned their lessons from giving him the eighth inning. That said, Pagan has the potential to work his way back to his 2019 form and earn late-inning work again in the near future.
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Born and raised in San Diego, aspiring Baseball Journalist and lifelong fan of the San Diego Padres. My life’s goal is to retire early, become a season ticket holder and practically live at Petco Park in the summer.