What a difference a year makes! This time last year the “if” about the Padre bullpen was pretty straightforward. The bullpen would be fine IF Kevin Towers could find 6 new faces to fill it. And that’s essentially what he did, picking every arm he could off the waiver wire, end of spring reject pile, and auction block to try to find someone who could get the ball to then hopeful closer Heath Bell.
Fortunately for new Padres GM, Jed Hoyer, by the end of last season several guys had stepped up to provide at least some sense of stability to the back end of the ‘pen coming into spring training this year. As with every team, “ifs” abound in the bullpen, and here is their order of importance as I see them.
- 1. Heath Bell remains the Padre closer: Without question this is the cornerstone “If” for the Padre ‘pen in 2010. It really has nothing to do with Heath’s performance expectations, as he was almost flawless last year fearlessly converting 42 of 48 save opportunities with a 2.71 ERA. Yes, he showed a little fatigue towards the end with 3 blown chances and a 5.14 in September, but that is not a surprise for a guy in his first year in the role, and being asked to make his most appearances in the final month.
The “if” has to do with his being one of three Padres who were shopped this off season because of his arbitration eligibility, along with Kevin Kouzmanoff (since traded to Oakland), and Adrian Gonzalez. He is a valuable piece to any bullpen in baseball as a closer or super-heavy duty set up man, and could command some nice pieces in return. Joe Nathan’s recent elbow blowout surely has prompted some phone calls to Hoyer, and the Twins aren’t the only team who could be needing Bell’s services.
As an organization in rebuild mode, the Pads will certainly entertain the offers being presented, but should Heath be sent elsewhere the shockwaves could rattle the entire team. There is no clear-cut successor in wait, and almost no matter how the void is filled the domino affect will force guys into roles they may not be prepared to fill. The uncertainty of not knowing who is coming in to hold the lead that was fought for over the previous 8 innings, or more, can shake a team’s confidence to its foundation. Maybe someone steps up, and becomes the next Trevor Hoffman, or Heath Bell for that matter, but the late inning lead loss can destroy a team’s morale as quickly as a Bell fastball gets by the last batter of a ball game.
- 2. Mike Adams pitches like he did last year: Ha! Ok, a little bit of sarcasm there, because realistically how could he? He has had two solid seasons in a row for the Pads, and If Mike pitches a full season like he did last year for the final 4 months upon his return from arm surgery, it would be one of the most dominant full season bullpen performances in MLB history. In 37 appearances he posted a microscopic 0.73 ERA, striking out 45 in 37 IP, and holding opposing batters to a .111 average. If he puts together half the dominance he did last year the Pads still have great coverage for the 7th and 8th innings to get to Bell.
- 3. Joe Thatcher stays on the left side of the rubber: After being the left handed human yo-yo between AAA and the big club for parts of the past 3 seasons, Darren Balsley moved Thatcher to the first base side of the pitching rubber, and the difference has been significant. Not only did the move provide him with greater deception and angle against left hand batters, but more importantly he gained confidence. By the end of the year he became so consistent that he was a guy Buddy Black could go to in late game lead situations, and he performed brilliantly. If this progression for Joe continues the Padres could have their best lefty/righty tandem, along with Adams, in recent memory.
- 4. Luke Gregerson refines his fastball command: Luke’s slider is already major league quality, and he used it very affectively posting a 3.24 in 72 games during his rookie campaign. As he continues to gain more command with his fastball, he will become even nastier on right handers, who hit only .161 against him last year, and lefties as well who were a bit more troublesome hitting .285.
- 5. Another diamond in the rough emerges: As after the first couple months of last year, there are some good young arms with exciting upside waiting to hit their stride, which could provide pay dirt for the Pads. Aaron Poreda, Adam Russell, Edward Mujica, can all provide important innings. Poreda, and even a kid like Radhames Liz, have impressed Blasley in the early weeks of spring, and could be names we are talking about with confidence this time next season.
There is far more confidence, and an “if “ list painted with a much thinner brush for this year’s bullpen. However, if Bell is traded there could be a huge sucking sound as the sense of stability and comfort in currently assigned roles get caught in the ever dangerous bullpen by committee vortex.