Relief pitchers the Padres should consider this winter

Credit: LA Times

Credit: AP Photo

The San Diego Padres need more pitching.

It’s a line of thinking that many among the fan base and within the Padres organization can agree upon. 

Much of the conversation surrounding the Padres pitching needs has centered on, and understandably so, that of the starting pitching staff. With the departure of Seth Lugo to Kansas City and the presumed departure of Michael Wacha and 2023 CY Young Award-winner Blake Snell, it’s easy to understand why the bolstering of starting pitching staff is at the forefront of so many minds. 

However, the Padres bullpen also sits with several holes that A.J. Preller and the front office should address before the start of spring training. As with Luis Garcia a Halo, Nick Martinez a Red, and Josh Hader seemingly as good as gone, the Padres need back-end and high-leverage bullpen arms. 

Who might the Friars look to target in trades, and who might be some players who fit the Padres’ high-leverage inning needs?

Let’s take a look. 

 

Hunter Harvey, RHP, Washington Nationals 

The 29-year-old 6-foot-3, 239 lbs right-hander had a breakout season for the Nats in 2023. He posted a 2.28 ERA, 2.81 FIP, 10.1 K/9, and K’D 28.5% of batters faced, Harvey became one of the better 8th-inning men in baseball last season. 

While the outside standard stats are impressive, his underlying numbers and data are what could excite folks most. Harvey’s K%, BB%, and xERA were all in the 80th percentile or better in 23′. Harvey also held opposing hitters to a WOBA (Weighted On Base Average) of .252, putting him in the top 4% of the MLB Last season.  

Harvey also possesses something the Padres desperately need in the back end of their bullpen, top-end velocity. Harvey’s fastball isn’t just good; it’s great. With an avg. FB velo of 98.3 MPH, and  at times reached 100+ mph23, it ranked him in the 97th percentile according to Baseball Savant, 

Along with the fastball, Harvey also claims ownership of a splitter and slider that he throws 18.7% and 13.9% of the time, respectively. 

While Harvey favors the Splitter, Pitching Coach Ruben Niebla may increase his slider usage if brought to SD, as the 23 Batters that faced sliders during at-bats in this past season managed just a .087 batting average, xBA of .124 and .173 xSLUG against the pitch. 

Harvey does come with some concerns, most notably that of injury and health. In 2022 and 2023, he made IL stents. Both of which were for right forearm soreness. 

However, with his production last season, high ceiling, and two years of arbitration control in 2024 and 2025, Harvey is a power arm that can slide in and be a replacement and an upgrade over the departing Luis Garcia. 

 

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AJ Puk, LHP, Miami Marlins 

The Former No.6 overall pick in the 2016 MLB draft, by way of the University of Florida, Puk is a man who could ease the burden of losing All-Star closer Josh Hader. 

No, Puk would not become the Padres ninth inning man; that role seems set for Robert Saurez after he received a 5-year, 46 million dollar deal last offseason. But Puk would give the Padres a power left-handed relief option who could be trusted in high-leverage innings. 

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The 28-year-old southpaw’s “box score” or “surface level” numbers may not blow you away as he posted a 3.97 ERA, 3.59 FIP, and a 0.6 bWAR in 23′. That said, with Puk, it’s about what’s the peripherals and underlying numbers that make him such an enticing and potentially valuable acquisition. 

Last season Puk clocked a 12.9 K/9 and was in the 89 percentile or better in Wiff%(32.8), K%(32.2), BB%(5.4), Hard Hit%(32.2), and xERA(3.03). 

While Puk is a four-pitch pitcher, he truthfully only relies on two: his fastball and sweeper. He threw the heater 51.1% of the time and the sweeper 42.6% of the time. While the 95.8 mph average fastball velocity is certainly eye-popping, it’s the sweeper that gives hitters the most trouble. Against 87 hitters last season, Puck’s sweeper had an xSlug of .339, xBA of .194, and an absurd 38.9 percent whiff rate. 

Now, with Puk, there could be a few issues/holdups in trading for him. One is that no one knows what the Marlins Organizational direction is. Are they buying or selling? They were a playoff team last season, but they’ve since fired general manager Kim Ng.   

Another is that the Marlins may see Puk as someone too valuable and with too much control to trade.  He still has four years of organizational control and could soon be put back in the starting rotation, according to sources close to the Marlins. The trade may require a higher-end prospect, but it would give the Friars a long-term and dominant bullpen asset. 

 

Keynan Middleton, RHP, Free Agent

Middleton, a former third-round pick of the Los Angeles Angels in 2017, is a player who has seen more valleys for the first five years of his career than he has peaks. However, in 23′, the right-hander, who had bounced between three different teams, put it all together, thriving with the White Sox and Yankees last season. 

He posted a 3.38 ERA, a 1.24 WHIP, and a 4.20 FIP. The 6-foot-3 right-hander closed the season in New York, where he allowed just seven hits and three earned runs through 14 1/3 innings before an injury in September ended his season. 

Middleton owns a quality fastball, ranking in the 76th percentile, and averaged 95.5 mph on the radar gun. But Middleton can credit a majority of dominance to his breaking balls. He leaned heavily into his changeup and slider this past season, as he threw the two a combined 73.7 percent of the time. 

 Those two pitches would help Middleton log a 36% whiff rate, a chase rate of 33.1 %, and a K rate of 30.2 %. All of which were in the 90th percentile or better among relief pitchers last season. It would also translate to a 102 Stuff+.

The 30-year-old also has a knack for inducing soft contact and ground balls. As in 2023, Middleton owned a 56.5% groundball rate and allowed just a 31.5% hard hit rate. Middleton is also a player who should fit the Padres’ efforts to be more cost-effective, as he should fall into the $6-10 million AAV range given the contracts to similar players like Reynaldo Lopez. 

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