Capps' return bolsters already improving bullpen

Hand, Buchter, Maurer all made giant strides in 2016

Capps' return bolsters already improving bullpen

Bill Center, longtime sportswriter for U-T San Diego, is an employee of the Padres.

The Padres are excited about their bullpen entering Spring Training.

That certainly wasn't the case a year ago when the Padres opened the season with almost as many questions as they had spots on the bullpen bench at Petco Park.

But breakout 2016 seasons by left-handed set-up relievers Brad Hand and Ryan Buchter and the emergence of Brandon Maurer as a closer plus the return of Carter Capps has changed the outlook considerably from a year ago.

Plus, a number of Minor League relievers made huge jumps last year, most notably Phil Maton, Jason Jester, Brad Wieck, Jose Torres, Rafael De Paula, Yimmi Brasoban, Eric Yardley, Kyle McGrath, Jose Castillo and David Bednar.

"We have good depth at the upper levels of the bullpen," Padres manager Andy Green said recently. "And we have a number of guys who have moved up through the system who appear ready to take the next step."

And there is veteran depth in Kevin Quackenbush, Keith Hessler and Buddy Baumann plus a number of younger relievers in the minors and Christian Bethancourt, who will get the opportunity this spring to be an eighth member of the bullpen as a hybrid catcher-pitcher-outfielder.

"We have a lot of games with very few days off in the first two months of the season," said Green. "If Bethancourt can pitch, it might allow us to carry only seven arms in the bullpen where we might have needed eight."

The Padres will have flexibility in both left-handed and right-handed relievers as well as relievers with options remaining, meaning the Padres will be able to shuttle some relievers between the Major League and Minor League bullpens without losing them from the 40-man roster.

Left-handed options include Hand, Buchter, Hessler, Baumann, Torres, Wieck, Jerry Keel, Kyle Bartsch and Kyle McGrath. Leading right-handers include Maurer, Capps, Quackenbush, Tyrell Jenkins, Jester, Maton, Brasoban and Eric Yardley.

"I like our bullpen options," said general manager A.J. Preller. "I think we have good depth at the major and Minor League levels."

The Padres appear set at the four late-inning slots in the bullpen with Capps, Maurer, Hand and Buchter. What isn't set is who will emerge as the closer. While Maurer was solid in the slot after Fernando Rodney was traded, Capps has startling pre-Tommy John credentials. If healthy, Capps will make a strong run.

"The closer position is open to discussion," said Green. "When I saw Capps in 2015 with Miami, he was absolutely lights out. It's easier to protect the workload of a closer than a setup reliever."

Capps had a 1.16 earned run average in 30 appearances with the Marlins in 2015 with 58 strikeouts while allowing 18 hits in 31 innings. He has a unique delivery, taking an extra hop towards the plate while dragging his back foot. When healthy, Capps' velocity ranged from 97 to 100 mph. Capps expects to be 100 percent by Opening Day.

"As far as I'm concerned, I'll have no limitations within reason," said the 26-year-old Capps. "My rehab has progressed without a hitch. I threw my first bullpen at the end of January. I'm looking forward to going into Spring Training and competing."

Maurer, 26, had 13 saves after becoming the Padres closer. Overall, he had a 4.52 ERA in 71 appearances with 72 strikeouts in 69 2/3 innings. He had a 2.59 ERA in his final 41 outings.

Hand, who turns 27 March 20, led the Major League with 82 appearances last season. He was named the Padres' Pitcher of the Year by the media for posting a 2.92 ERA with 111 strikeouts in 89 1/3 innings while going 4-4 with a save. Hand finished an appearance short of the Padres' single-season record.

Buchter, 29, had a 2.86 ERA in 67 appearances as a rookie last season with 78 strikeouts in 63 innings. He was 3-0 with a save. Opponents hit .160 against Buchter, the second-lowest mark by a qualifying reliever in the National League and the fifth-best mark in the Major Leagues.

Quackenbush, 28, had a 7-7 record and a 3.92 ERA in 60 appearances last season. Hessler, 27, had a 3.38 ERA in 15 appearances with the Padres. Baumann had a 3.72 ERA in 11 appearances with the Padres.

Prospects: Expect to see Maton and Torres and possibly Brad Wieck with the Padres at some time during the season.

Maton, 23, jumped from low Single-A to Triple-A El Paso this season and finished the season by saving playoff games as the Chihuahuas won the Pacific Coast League title. Overall, Maton had a 1.74 ERA in 38 appearances this season with 78 strikeouts in 51 2/3 innings.

Torres, 23, jumped from Advanced Single-A Lake Elsinore to Triple-A last season and finished the campaign with four scoreless appearances with the Padres. Overall in the Minor Leagues, Torres had a 2.24 ERA in 48 appearances with 63 strikeouts in 64 1/3 innings.

Wieck, 25, had a 1.17 ERA with 93 strikeouts over 61 1/3 innings over 41 appearances with Lake Elsinore and Double-A San Antonio last season. He had a 0.44 ERA in 15 appearances with the Missions.

Overview: The bullpen was viewed as one of the Padres weakest areas going into the 2016 season. If Capps is healthy and Hand, Buchter and Maurer repeat their 2016 performances, the bullpen can be one of the club's strengths in 2017. Watch for Maton and Torres to make their marks in 2017.