Let’s Check In On the Padres’ Bullpen

You probably haven’t thought about the Padres’ bullpen in a while, and you’d be forgiven for that. Most of the high-profile additions they’ve made in the last several months have come in the starting rotation. The other big moves, such as trading for Austin Nola and signing Ha-seong Kim, have been upgrades to the lineup. Oh, and there’s that whole record-setting contract they just gave to their 22-year-old superstar.

All of that has overshadowed the fact that the turnover in San Diego’s relief staff lately has been extreme. Seven of the team’s top eight projected relievers on our Depth Charts page were not on the roster at the end of the 2019 season. Like the rest of the Padres, though, that turnover has resulted in a unit that now looks like one of the best in baseball. It’s worth getting caught up, then, on who the newest arrivals are, who has recently departed, and where that leaves the group as a whole.

San Diego did a lot of its heavy lifting last offseason and at the trade deadline, but the team signed two notable big leaguers in the last few weeks. One was Mark Melancon, the 35-year-old veteran who will join the eighth team of his soon-to-be 13-year big league career. Melancon became famous at the back of Pittsburgh’s bullpen in the mid-2010s when his cutter made him one of the game’s most dominant closers for a few years, bringing about the obligatory comparisons to Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera. From 2013 to ’16, he threw 290 innings with a 1.80 ERA and 2.25 FIP, all while throwing his cutter about 67% of the time. After that, he landed a big contract with the Giants, who traded him to the Braves at the deadline in 2019. Melancon wasn’t as good over the past four seasons as the four previous, but he still managed to pitch effectively.

Mark Melancon’s Last Eight Years, In Two Halves
Years IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA FIP WAR
2013-16 290 8.32 1.40 0.31 57.4% 1.80 2.25 7.7
2017-20 159 8.04 2.55 0.57 57.2% 3.57 3.18 2.3

The second row is more representative of a good seventh-inning guy than a lockdown closer, but if you’re still missing as many bats and getting as many ground balls in your early-to-mid-30s as you did in your mid-to-late 20s, you’re accomplishing something. Melancon’s strikeout numbers did take a hit in 2020, dropping all the way from 9.9 per nine the previous season to 5.56, but I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt because of the shortened season limiting him to just 22.2 innings. Last year featured his highest cutter velocity since 2014 and spin rates on his curveball that were right in line with previous years, so the stuff still seems fine. In fact, both his cutter and his curveball — which combined for 94% of his total offerings — resulted in an xwOBA under .300.

This isn’t to say Melancon arrives without risk. He’ll turn 36 before Opening Day, and while he’s been healthy the last two seasons, he did miss significant time in 2017 and ’18 with muscle strains. He’s the kind of pitcher for whom a sudden breakdown could be looming any given year, and the modest $3 million commitment — in spite of his track record — is representative of that.

The other reliever signed by San Diego, meanwhile, hopes to have many more years of big league pitching ahead. Keone Kela, a 27-year-old right-hander, agreed to a one-year, $1.2-million deal for 2021, after forearm discomfort limited him to just four innings in his final year of team control with Pittsburgh. Prior to that, he’d been a late-inning stalwart since debuting for Texas back in 2015 at the age of 21.

Keone Kela Career Numbers
2015 60.1 10.14 2.69 0.60 50.6% 2.39 2.64 1.5
2016 34.0 11.91 4.50 1.59 43.9% 6.09 4.56 0.0
2017 38.2 11.87 3.96 0.93 30.5% 2.79 3.26 0.8
2018 52.0 11.42 3.29 0.87 37.3% 3.29 2.97 1.4
2019 29.2 10.01 3.34 0.91 37.8% 2.12 3.52 0.4

Save for 2016, Kela has been excellent for his whole career. Relying primarily upon an upper-90s fastball and a low-80s curveball, he’s managed to get whiffs at an incredibly consistent rate. Seriously, look how straight this line is:

Relievers with such consistently strong performance who enter the market at 27 years old don’t come around very often, so why did Kela settle for such a meager contract? For starters, his injury issues last year were nothing new. He was out for an extended portion of 2019 due to inflammation in his throwing elbow and also missed significant time during his Rangers tenure with elbow and shoulder injuries. Those ailments have added up: He ranks just 100th among all big league relievers in innings pitched since 2015, the year he debuted.

Other non-performance-related reasons could have chased off bidders as well. I’m usually one of the last people to concern-troll about the “clubhouse presence” of any given player, considering how muddled (not to mention often discriminatory) those kinds of discussions tend to be. In the case of Kela, though, it is worth noting that he was suspended by the Pirates in 2019 for getting into an altercation with a team employee. That wasn’t the only suspension he had to serve that season, nor was it the first time he’d been temporarily removed from a big league team due to confrontations with other members of the organization. Still, the talent he has shown is undeniable. If he stays healthy, the Padres could have a stud on their hands for cheap.

San Diego hopes the two free agents added to the bullpen this winter will offset two major departures from the same group. Back in January, the Padres watched Kirby Yates — the team’s best reliever in 2019 — sign with the Blue Jays. Just last week, they lost another key pitcher in Trevor Rosenthal, who joined Oakland. That leaves San Diego with the following projected group heading into 2021, which our Depth Charts ranks as the fourth-best bullpen in baseball:

2021 Padres RP Depth Charts Projections
Drew Pomeranz 62 11.8 4.3 1.1 3.54 3.69 1.1
Emilio Pagán 61 10.6 2.8 1.4 3.75 3.88 0.8
Pierce Johnson 58 10.5 3.9 1.1 3.77 3.81 0.7
Mark Melancon 57 7.8 2.8 1.0 3.82 3.98 0.4
Matt Strahm 53 9.2 2.7 1.3 3.94 4.13 0.3
Austin Adams 52 13.1 4.9 0.9 3.16 3.37 0.5
Tim Hill 44 8.7 3.2 0.8 3.57 3.76 0.1
Keone Kela 42 11.7 3.5 1.1 3.36 3.47 0.2
Javy Guerra 32 8.8 3.6 1.1 4.11 4.11 0.0
Dan Altavilla 24 10.8 5.1 1.2 4.15 4.33 0.0

It’s a lot of good arms, and only Strahm and Guerra were in the organization at the end of the 2019 season. Pomeranz was the big free-agent addition a year ago, and he dominated in 2020, pitching in a third of the team’s games and holding a 1.45 ERA and 2.39 FIP. Johnson was signed before last season as well, coming in with less than 50 innings of big league experience, and turned in a 2.70 ERA and 3.14 FIP in 20 innings. Hill and Pagán were acquired via trade before the 2020 season, and Adams and Altavilla came over last August at the deadline. San Diego has acquired more good big league relievers than it can keep on the roster at once, and we haven’t even gotten to the pitchers who aren’t on this list.

You don’t see Chris Paddack or MacKenzie Gore on that table, even though one of them seems bound to pitch out of the bullpen at some point in the season while the other assumes the fifth spot in the rotation. Adrian Morejon, the talented 21-year-old lefty who was the team’s No. 6 prospect entering 2020, isn’t on this list, even though his K-BB% of 26.6% in 19.1 innings last year suggests he’s ready to stick in the majors quite soon. Craig Stammen isn’t here either, though he’s still in the organization and led the team in relief appearances last season while carrying a 3.36 FIP. Other talented young arms such as Jose Castillo, Michel Baez or Ryan Weathers? None of them are projected to throw 20 innings in this bullpen.

I don’t mean to paint these projections as something that should be taken as gospel. The objective here is to point out the preposterous number of options the Padres have for the coming season. Injuries will happen, and at least one or two guys will fail to live up to expectations. But with so many contingency plans in place, it’s hard to imagine a world where a single pitcher’s misfortune hurts the unit as a whole. San Diego didn’t need to add more guaranteed contracts to this bullpen, but it did anyway, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the team do it again. With the bullpen, as with other parts of the roster, the excess seems to be the point.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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Braves fan here, I know the strikeout rate is concerning but I can confirm that the stuff is still crisp. He can bump that cutter up to 94 and it can be pretty nasty. And he does a great job of getting weak contact, the Statcast numbers still look solid.