The San Diego Padres had an up-and-down 2019, but their one consistent unit was their bullpen. Featuring a handful of ferocious arms, the ‘pen ranked sixth in the league in fWAR at 5.4, its 4.00 FIP was fourth, and its 4.08 xFIP ranked second. To go along with a good strikeout rate, the Padres’ arms had the second-lowest walk rate among all bullpens, which gave them the league’s second-best K-BB%. In terms of saves, for a club that only had 70 wins in 2019, the Padres sure got a lot of saves, and it wasn’t their bullpen that cost them wins. Their 47 saves as a team was sixth-highest in baseball, and they had 96 holds, also inside the top 10. Fifteen different Padres recorded a hold, with 11 of those 15 recording more than one. With one of the best closers in baseball in Kirby Yates, there won’t be a lot of opportunities for someone else to record saves, as Yates had 41, and the next closest reliever had only four.
Yates is clearly the biggest stud of the group, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t others to be excited about. New additions Drew Pomeranz, and Emilio Pagan are set to join Yates as maybe the most feared late-inning combination in baseball. Craig Stammen led the bullpen in innings a year ago, and was solid in his role, Andres Munoz isn’t even 21 yet, but he’ll likely get a lot of high-leverage innings with his dominant fastball that sits in the upper 90s. Matt Strahm is on the outside looking in for a rotation spot and was so dominant after being moved to the bullpen in 2019 that they may just keep him there. Those are just a few of the options that new manager Jayce Tingler will have at his disposal in 2019, and those pieces could make for an even better group in 2020.
|Kirby Yates||Drew Pomeranz||Emilio Pagan||Andres Munoz||Matt Strahm||Jose Castillo|
Updated: February 9, 2020
Closer – Kirby Yates
Relievers are probably the most fungible, inconsistent position when it comes to year-to-year performance. There aren’t many sure bets, but Yates is one of them. He has been one of the best relievers in baseball for the past two seasons, and if there were any doubts about it going into 2019, Yates proved them wrong with a fantastic season, in which he improved in virtually every category. But what I love the most about Yates’ 2019 is that his strikeout rate jumped to a whopping 41.6%, up from 36.0% in 2018, and he dropped his walk rate to 5.4%. To make it even better, he suppressed homers at a great rate while most of the league struggled with it. His HR/FB rate was cut more than half, falling to 4.8% from 11.4% the previous year. There’s just so much to love about Yates, and if all those factors get even better in 2019, it’s a good recipe for his being one of, if not the best, reliever in baseball.
The only area where Yates regressed was in his ability to get chases and swinging strikes. While his rates in 2019 were still excellent, it is worth noting that his O-swing rate dropped nearly five percentage points in 2019 and back toward his pre-domination rate, but it was still toward the top of the reliever leaderboard. Additionally, his ability to get swinging strikes dropped to his lowest rate since becoming a reliever, but at 15.6%, it’s still one of the best in baseball. With improvements elsewhere, I’m not too concerned about it, although it is something to watch if you happen to be a Yates owner come the spring.
Yates’ value as a fantasy reliever shouldn’t cause much debate, and it’s possible that he’s the first reliever drafted in your league. He’s boring, in terms of his being a safe, low-maintenance option, which is definitely not a bad thing, but everyone loves finding the next stud reliever who comes out of nowhere and picking him up before anybody else does. With Yates that’s one less position to be worried about. He was the best reliever by ESPN’s player rater last season, and with a Padres team that should be improved for 2020, Yates should have more save opportunities, which could increase his value even more. Overall, he is likely to repeat as one of the best relievers in baseball in 2020, and he is likely to justify his draft cost.
Setup – Drew Pomeranz
The Padres signing of Drew Pomeranz may go down as one of my favorites of the entire offseason. Pomeranz, already a one-time Padre, is returning to San Diego under different circumstances as when he was first there. In his first tour of San Diego, Pomeranz was looking like one of the bright, young starting pitchers and he was dominant with a 2.47 ERA with the team in the first half of 2016. He was traded to Boston and never quite reached the same highs as he did previously in his career. Going into 2019, Pomeranz signed a small one-year deal with the San Francisco Giants and after toiling away for a few months in their rotation, they finally moved him to the bullpen. After a small sample of relief appearances where he was pretty successful, the Milwaukee Brewers took a risk in trading for him, and it paid off. Pomeranz was a completely different pitcher with Milwaukee as he not only gained fastball velocity, but he reworked his pitch mix to cut his other, less-good pitches out.
Pomeranz focused mostly on his fastball-curveball combination, going heavily up in the zone with his heater and going down in the zone with his breaking ball, Pomeranz found success with that combination to the tune of a 2.39 ERA and a 2.68 FIP in his tenure with Milwaukee. The stuff clearly played in a relief role, as his strikeout rate jumped to an incredible 42.2% rate in the second half of the season, and to get even more ridiculous with it, he had a 52.1% strikeout rate in September. He was one of the absolute best relievers in the game since his trade to the Brewers, and the Padres clearly believed in him enough to sign him to a four-year contract. Whether he does it again remains to be seen, but the tangible changes he made upon being converted to relief should give confidence that he can make it work for a long period of time. While he should have the stuff to be a closer, having Yates in the same bullpen will likely limit his save opportunities, but Pomeranz should play a big role being the main setup option and part of a fearsome end-of-game trio for the Padres.
Setup – Emilio Pagan
By adding Emilio Pagan, the Padres bullpen goes from elite to downright unfair. Pagan, the primary closer for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2019, will now slot into a setup role in what could be the best late-inning trio in all of baseball. Pagan’s .221 xwOBA allowed in 2019 was the best of any pitcher in baseball last season with a minimum of 100 batters faced. Think of all of the great pitchers in baseball, and now think that Pagan was better than every single one of them in terms of xwOBA allowed last season. That is absolutely incredible. While I wouldn’t bet on him doing that again, Pagan does seem to have figured things out on the mound, as his fastball velocity jumped to 95.5 miles-per-hour, up from 93.8 miles-per-hour in 2018, which helped his fastball whiff rate jump to 36.0%, and his overall strikeout rate to rise all the way from 24.1% to 36.0% in 2019. Pair that with a cutter that also saw it’s velocity jump over two miles-per-hour, and Pagan now looks like a pitcher with a pretty lethal 1-2 combination of pitches that should work well together in the future.
While it does look like his 2.31 ERA was outperforming his 3.30 FIP, even if he regresses to a closer to 3.30 ERA mark in 2020, he will still be a fantastic pitcher who would fit in at the back of any bullpen. However, he does have a pretty significant red flag in his high home run rate. In 2019 his HR/9 of 1.54 was an improvement over his 2018 mark of 1.89, but it is still too high and a couple of poorly timed homers allowed for a reliever can do some serious damage to an ERA (just ask Edwin Diaz). Pagan was able to work around homers last season, but it is always a risk to put our precious fantasy teams fates into a homer-prone reliever who can ruin your week with one or two bad outings in a row. However, with him now being out of a closer’s job unless something happens to Yates, Pagan’s fantasy value is sure to drop. If you don’t care about the lack of saves, Pagan is likely to be a pretty nice, quality reliever that could be sitting for free on the waiver wire who could provide some of the best innings of any relief pitcher in baseball.
Middle – Andres Munoz
Speaking of that fearsome trio, I don’t want to sell this next pitcher short. I currently have Andres Munoz slotted in for that second set-up role-although there will likely be a battle for roles after Yates and Pomeranz, with clarity not likely coming until the season is underway. There’s risk with Munoz but also a lot of fun. With a power fastball that touches 100 mph, he received an 80-grade rating on the pitch from a variety of outlets. In his first taste of the majors in 2019, he averaged 99.9 mph on the pitch, and it was at times lethal. He didn’t quite get as many strikeouts or swinging strikes with the pitch as you would maybe expect, though, and it did get hit a little bit with a .472 slugging and .502 xSLG allowed. But with velocity like that, the results should come with time. Munoz instead got better results with his slider. The pitch had a 46.3% whiff rate, and Munoz only allowed two hits off it. He only pitched 23 innings in 2019, but it is good to see him get good results on the offering, as many scouting reports made clear that he would need to improve that pitch to get to that next level as a pitcher.
Munoz’s risk comes from his control, or lack thereof. Always his weakness as a prospect, Munoz’s control issues were on display during his cameo in 2019, with an 11.3% walk rate that was second among Padres relievers. He has the stuff to be a great reliever, but with improvements in his control, he could become an elite one. As it stands, Munoz should open the season in a high-leverage role, could be a future closer and is a pitcher to watch.
Middle – Matt Strahm
Longtime readers know how much love Strahm has gotten on this site, and it looks like he is having his best success as a reliever and is likely to start the season in that role as the Padres filter in some younger starting pitchers. It might be best for his career to finally have his role cemented, but man, I will never give up hope on Strahm being a capable major league starting pitcher. He was pushed to the bullpen in the second half of 2019 and succeeded. It looked like his stuff was really playing in that role, as he had much more success as a reliever with a 3.27 ERA compared to a 5.29 ERA as a starter. Even with that rough line as a starter, Strahm was the 29th-best pitcher in the league by SIERA with a 3.95 mark in a little over 100 innings, which I’d say is a good sign.
The Padres haven’t formally announced whether Strahm is going into the offseason preparing as a starter, but if he does wind up back in the bullpen to start the year, he’ll feature a healthy dose of sliders that touch the upper 80s to go along with his fastball as his main offerings. The slider is his best whiff pitch, with a 27.5% rate and his less often used curveball is slightly behind it with a 24.7% rate. Strahm is different from most late-inning relievers because he doesn’t feature a blazing fastball that touches the upper 90s and above, but what he lacks in fastball velocity, he makes up with a repertoire consisting of two good breaking balls that play off his fastball that should give him success in a bullpen role.
Middle – Jose Castillo
Speaking of quality young arms, Jose Castillo is another one. Castillo does have slightly more experience than some of the Padres’ other young arms, but his 2019 was limited to seven and two-third innings across all levels due to a myriad of injuries, but in his 38-inning sample in 2018, Castillo was great, maximizing strikeouts as evidenced by his 34.7% strikeout rate. Castillo put up an outstanding 2.53 SIERA that season, and if he were to keep that up following a lost 2019, he would become one of the best relievers in baseball. He features a fastball-slider combination that led to a 14% swinging-strike rate in 2018, which is not too shabby. 2020 will probably start slowly for Castillo, as I imagine the team will want to ease him back in after he threw so few innings in 2019, but he is a potential future impact arm to watch and a good building block for this young bullpen.
There are still more talented pieces here, and just because they aren’t locked into a role, doesn’t mean they don’t have promise. Adrian Morejon is still only 20 years old, and he made his MLB debut in 2019, albeit for only eight innings. His stuff is electric, as evidenced by his strong strikeout rates at every level of the minors, and there is still hope that he can make it as a starting pitcher. Injury issues may force him to the bullpen, though, and with a scorching fastball to go along with a plus changeup and an average breaking ball, Morejon could be a wild card for the Padres bullpen this season if his injuries subside, as his profile would work well in relief.
Michel Baez should be an option for multiple innings as either an opener or a bulk reliever for now, and in his 2019 debut, he showed some good signs with a 3.03 ERA. Although that wasn’t quite backed up his in peripherals, Baez should be an option for the Padres this season but will likely see his role change several times, as he may go down to the minor leagues if necessary. Luis Perdomo is another multi-inning option who has a lot of experience already at only age 26, but after flaming out as a starter he has found a home in the bullpen, where he was fine in 2019 with a 4.00 ERA, 3.60 FIP, and a 4.15 SIERA. He isn’t a strikeout artist and instead relies on soft contact to get hitters out. Pitchers like that usually see their performance fluctuate, and may be what keeps Perdomo from getting high up in the Padres pecking order.
2019 was the first taste of the bigs for David Bednar, and although he was lackluster with a 6.55 ERA and 5.58 FIP, it was only in 11 innings pitched, and his further peripherals were pretty good with a 4.38 xFIP and 3.88 SIERA, thanks to a great 29.2% strikeout rate, and a HR/FB rate of 23.1%, which should come back down to earth with more innings. Bednar never really had a home run issue in the minors, and his minor league track record is outstanding. In Double-A in 2019, Bednar posted a 2.42 xFIP and a 28.3 K-BB%, and while those numbers aren’t likely to stick in the majors, Bednar should have success as a major leaguer. His repertoire consists of a fastball that averages 95 mph and a combination of a splitter and a curveball that he will use to get whiffs. Overall, Bednar is yet another high-quality arm the Padres have developed and should be a high-leverage arm at some point. But for 2019, it’s more about his further development while also getting important middle-inning outs for the Padres.
With the emergence of a handful of young arms in the Padres bullpen, in addition to the signing of Pomeranz, it would have made sense for the Padres to let the 35-year-old Craig Stammen walk. Instead, the team decided to bring him back on a two-year deal in early January. The Padres decided they can never have enough quality arms, and I don’t disagree with that thinking. Stammen has been a key piece in the Padres bullpen since 2017, and while the high-leverage opportunities may not be there like they once were with some new arms in the fold, Stammen could be their best middle-relief option.
Stammen is definitely a ground-ball pitcher, with a career rate of 50.2%, and his sinker usage was 71% in 2019. While he maintained his reputation as a ground-baller in 2019, some other areas of his game took a step back, evidenced by jumps in his peripheral stats, such as his FIP rising to 4.12, and his xFIP to 3.85 when they were in the 2.00s in 2018. After posting a career-high in strikeout rate in 2018 at 27.8%, he regressed to his more usual rate of 21.5% in 2019, also the lowest rate in his three seasons as a Padre. That drop in strikeout rate is backed up by the drops in whiffs on all three of his pitches, and a sharp drop in his swinging-strike rate from 14.0% in 2018 to just 9.1% in 2019, which was the worst in his career except for his rookie season way back in 2009.
There’s always a risk with a pitcher who is going to be 36 by Opening Day, but Stammen should continue to be an above-average arm, and he should continue to limit walks like he’s always done, but with him to likely be further down the Padres bullpen pecking order in 2020, he may not be the best option for fantasy purposes out of all the talented pitchers in there.
Featured Image by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)