One Trick Pony
by Hugh Rothman
The San Diego Padres have not done many things very well over the years, which is one reason why they have a grand total of zero championships. They don’t have a long history of great starting pitchers, like the Dodgers, or historic outfielders, like the Yankees. They don’t even have a legacy of futility, like the Chicago Cubs. Instead, the Padres have been generally just plain bad, but not historically bad. They’ve just been bad and forgettable.
However, there is one particular aspect of the game that the Padres have been surprisingly adept at throughout their history: The bullpen. In their history, The Padres have had two players who fully represented the Padres during their careers and either are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, or will be shortly. One of those players of course is Tony Gwynn; he is the greatest Padre player ever and second place isn’t close. The other player was one of the greatest closers of all time: Trevor Hoffman.
Hoffman accumulated over 600 saves, most of them for the Padres and only one other reliever has more saves than him (Mariano Rivera, the greatest closer of all time). Hoffman had many fine years and was incredibly consistent but, he wasn’t the only notable reliever in the Padres history. Hall-of-Famers Rollie Fingers and Rich Gossage both were closers for the Padres at some point during their careers. Mark Davis won a Cy Young award while closing for the team in 1989. Other notable relievers include Lance McCullers, Mike Adams, Cla Meredith, Heath Bell, Huston Street, Joaquin Benoit, and Scott Linebrink, all of whom enjoyed their very best years toeing the rubber in the late innings for the Friar Faithful.
Again, the Padres have not done many things well over the years, but… historically, they have enjoyed consistent success from their bullpen. At this time, the bullpen remains the ONLY piece of the game that the team has managed to excel at. Over the last 15 years or so, much of this credit must go to their pitching coach Darren Balsley, but the Padre managers over that time, Bruce Bochy and Bud Black, may also share in the credit too. Both of those managers, with Balsley’s help, showed great acumen in developing a bullpen and retooling that bullpen year after year.
And even with new manager Andy Green, 2016 has been more of the same on this front. The year began with the venerable Fernando Rodney as their closer. Rodney, who is now 39 years old, was signed as a one year free agent stopgap and future trading piece. The previous years of 2014 and 2015 were hardly banner years for Rodney, but Balsley did his usual tinkering and voila! Rodney was a perfect 17 for 17 in save opportunities with a 0.87 WHIP (walks plus hits over innings pitched) and a ridiculously microscopic ERA of 0.31. The result was a third All-Star Team appearance for Rodney, as well as a long line of suitors for his services. The Miami Marlins were the ones who offered the most, a pretty good minor league pitcher that the Padres coveted, and poof, Rodney was gone, and so was the magic bullpen fairy dust: Rodney has a 6.30 ERA in Miami. Probably not a coincidence: The Padres are just really good at this bullpen thing!
With Rodney summarily jettisoned, the closer role fell to youngster Brandon Maurer, who had been acquired from the Seattle Mariners a year earlier. Maurer had been a starter for Seattle, with poor results mostly due to his inability to control his pitches effectively. The Padres put an end to that experiment and dispatched him to the bullpen, where he has had far greater success. This year, Maurer has looked dynamite at times, but his wobbly moments have put a crimp in his overall numbers. Currently, Maurer has a 4.50 ERA, which is subpar for a reliever, but he does have more strikeouts than innings pitched, and his WHIP is a steady 1.25. The bugaboo for Maurer has been the 7 homers he has given up. If he can get that down to a reasonable level, Maurer will add mightily to his career total of 10 saves. There is tremendous potential here, since Maurer is only 25 years old, has a 95+ mph fastball, and has good ol’ Darren Balsley to help him through any struggles. Expect Maurer to be the Padres closer for the next few years.
Unless that closer is Ryan Buchter, of course. Huh? Who is that? Don’t worry… no one could have been expected to know who this guy was. Before 2016, Ryan Buchter’s major league career consisted of one inning pitched for the Atlanta Braves in 2014. His most notable achievement is that he could throw with his left hand. However, as of today, Buchter now has 60 innings to his credit and with 74 strikeouts, only 4 homers allowed, and a 1.03 WHIP to go along with his 3.00 ERA, Buchter is at this moment the Padres best reliever (now that Rodney has departed). Credit the Padres for spinning straw into gold with Buchter, and this guy ain’t no Rumplestiltskin (he’s 6’4’’ 250 lbs). He’s also 29 years old so credit is due to Buchter for not giving up on his dreams, and the Padres are grateful. He will be an important piece of the bullpen puzzle for several years to come.
Bullpen graybeard Kevin Quackenbush is now the senior member of the Padres relief corp (in time served with the big club). “Quack” was once considered possibly, sort of, the closer of the future for the Padres, but he never had the big time stuff needed to fill the role. Now 27 years old, Quackenbush comfortably fills a low leverage relief role. Someone has to pitch in that role and Quackenbush fits the bill (ugh, sorry). His numbers won’t move dramatically one way or the other from this point on. Expect an ERA in the high 3.00s, with too many homers allowed to ever make the team comfortable, but generally solid and unassuming stats for several more years, until he gets too expensive. At which point, the team will move on to the next Quackenbush, whoever that may be.
Yet another shrewd bullpen move made by the Padres was to acquire lefty reliever Brad Hand for pretty much nothing. Hand was, like many successful relievers, an unsuccessful starter – in Hand’s case, for the Miami Marlins. However, as a reliever, Hand has turned in a career year for the Friars. In his 74 innings for the club, Hand has 98 strikeouts, which is terrific, as is his 2.99 ERA and 1.16 WHIP. If Hand, like most of the relief corp for the team, can limit his homers allowed rate, he could go from very good to dominant in a big hurry. Hand is only 26 years old and has just as much promise as Buchter and Maurer. If the Padres decided to make Hand the closer, the team wouldn’t miss a beat.
There are other relievers toiling for this team: Carlos Villanueva for one, but the less said of him, the better. He won’t be around in 2017 to worry about anyway. Jose Dominguez is 25 years old but his stuff is not very scintillating, as shown by his pitiful strikeout rate. Perhaps the only other pitcher in the bullpen worth mentioning is star-crossed Brandon Morrow, whose nickname could simply be “ouch”. Tiffany lamps have more durability than Morrow as a starter. The Padres finally (and wisely) decided to convert Morrow to a reliever, which should help him with his durability issues. If Morrow can hold up, he could become a dynamite reliever. His stuff is off-the-charts dominating. He’s always been a really good pitcher, when he can pitch, which hasn’t been very often. Sticking him in the pen might be the best way for a team to get value from this guy, and as long as you don’t put any undue stress on his arm, or any part of his body, or breathe on him too heavily, Morrow could really deliver. He is still only 31 years old, so there is plenty of time for him to contribute.
So what do the Padres have in the bullpen for the future? Maurer is nominally the closer and shouldn’t embarrass himself in the role, but Buchter and Hand are quite possibly better relievers than Maurer. Morrow could be the best of all of them, if nothing goes “sproing”, and Quackenbush is solid, dependable, mediocre, but cheap. In fact, all of these guys are really cheap and will be for a few more years. If any of them break down or lose their effectiveness, the Padres have shown the ability to find good or even excellent relievers from the trash heaps of discarded players from other teams. The Padres immediate future isn’t particularly rosy at the moment, but their bullpen looks as solid as ever. It’s the one thing they do really, really well.