With Spring Training on the horizon, MLB.com is taking an in-depth look at the 2017 Padres, breaking the team down position-by-position. Today, we preview the San Diego relievers.
The San Diego rotation isn't exactly overflowing with innings-eaters. In fact, the nine starting options entering camp combined to average only 5.23 innings per start in 2016.
With that in mind, it's safe to expect a large portion of the pitching burden to fall squarely on the Padres' bullpen. Fortunately for general manager A.J. Preller, he views the relief corps as a strength.
"It's an area of some depth for us," Preller said. "It's an area with some quality."
The quality begins with a pair of left-handers who were largely written off at this time a year ago. Ryan Buchter (2.86 ERA) and Brad Hand (2.92) were arguably the Padres' two best pitchers last season. And they didn't cost much. Buchter was a career Minor Leaguer who signed during the offseason, and Hand was designated for assignment by the Marlins during opening week.
Buchter and Hand spent the season setting up Brandon Maurer -- at least after Fernando Rodney was traded. And even though Maurer struggled a bit, posting a 4.52 ERA and a 1.26 WHIP, he seemed to regain his form toward the end of the season. What changed? Well, he tinkered with his slider, and in 29 appearances after the break, Maurer posted a 3.10 ERA.
Then, there's Carter Capps, the wild card in the bullpen mix. Capps -- who gained fame for the quirky hop-step incorporated into his throwing motion -- came to the Padres last season in the Andrew Cashner trade. He missed all of 2016 with Tommy John surgery, but should be fully healthy by Opening Day.
"Carter Capps, Brandon Maurer, Brad Hand and Ryan Buchter -- you should feel really good about that as a manager," Padres manager Andy Green said.
Added Preller: "That's a pretty good foundation. If the four of those guys are healthy and they perform like they're capable of, that's an area for us we're hoping is a strength."
Preller was quick to acknowledge that bullpens are typically the most volatile aspect of a team, from year to year. But the Padres feel as though they have enough depth to get by in 2017.
If the four pitchers mentioned above are roster locks, that would appear to leave a host of hurlers vying for two spots. (That's assuming Miguel Diaz, the No. 1 overall pick in the Rule 5 Draft, also makes the team.) It's doubtful San Diego will carry eight relievers, especially if the Christian Bethancourt experiment goes according to plan.
Buddy Baumann, Jose Torres and Keith Hessler, who debuted for the Padres last season, figure to be in the mix to become the final lefty reliever. Righty prospects Dinelson Lamet and Phil Maton could also be given an outside chance to make the roster.
"In our system, there are some guys that had really nice years for us last year," Preller said. "They'll come to Spring Training with a chance to compete and will probably help us during the year as well."
If Trevor Cahill, who signed a one-year contract last month, doesn't crack the starting rotation, there's room for him in the bullpen. The right-hander posted a 2.74 ERA in 50 appearances for the Cubs last season. (Paul Clemens fits the same mold, but doesn't have the same resume.) If the Padres want to go with a relief-only type, Kevin Quackenbush is an option.
In any case, there's a lot to be resolved in the bullpen this spring, but the Padres remain optimistic.
"That's four elite arms, and then there's a host of younger arms that are coming up through the organization, guys that have showed well," Green said. "... We have a nice contingent of bullpen arms to rely on, and I think that'll be a source of strength for us."
Projected closer: Maurer
Primary setup men: Hand, Buchter, Capps
In the mix: Quackenbush, Baumann, Torres, Diaz, Hessler, Maton, Lamet, Clemens, Cahill, Bethancourt