SAN DIEGO — An already-crowded Padres bullpen is imminently poised to grow by two members.
Mark Melancon and Keone Kela — right-handers with experience pitching high-leverage innings — are slated to sign with the Padres, according to sources. The two moves have yet to be announced by the club, as both are pending physicals and COVID-19 intake screening.
There’s little doubt that these moves make the Padres’ bullpen better. They also make the Padres’ bullpen picture slightly more confusing.
Pitchers and catchers are set to report to Spring Training on Wednesday, and 16 big league-caliber arms will be vying for at most eight or nine places. These are the factors that could shape the Padres’ bullpen race:
The closer race isn’t so obvious anymore
The Padres’ closer decision felt fairly straightforward at the beginning of the offseason. If they re-signed Trevor Rosenthal, he’d reassume that role. If they didn’t, Emilio Pagán and Drew Pomeranz would vie for it (with the obvious possibility that they’d share time).
Now, Melancon is on board, and even Kela has some experience as a closer. The Padres certainly haven’t locked anything into stone, and it seems possible they’ll give those two arms the chance to win a ninth-inning role.
In any case, the Padres have proven that they don’t take relief titles too seriously. Whoever ends up getting saves, their other big-time arms will fill high-leverage roles that are often just as important in the scope of the game.
Minor League options might be a factor
It’s not quite as simple as 16 pitchers fighting for eight (perhaps nine) places. The Padres know they’ll have to make cuts. But not all cuts are created equal.
Some players can be sent to the Minors freely. Some players cannot be, without first being exposed to waivers and available to other clubs. These pitchers cannot be:
That’s a full eight-man bullpen, and it doesn’t even include Pagán, arguably the favorite to close. It also doesn’t include presumed roster favorites like Matt Strahm (if healthy) and Adrian Morejon.
The Padres aren’t in the business of stashing unworthy players on their big league roster anymore. They’re in win-now mode in a cutthroat division. They’re going to need the best bullpen they can build (putting Guerra and Altavilla in some serious roster jeopardy).
Still, if all things are equal between, say, Stammen and the optionable Tim Hill, it’s certainly possible the Padres would side with Stammen in order to keep both in-house.
They might carry an extra reliever
One way to alleviate the bullpen crunch is to carry nine relievers, instead of seven or eight. That seems not only possible, but perhaps likely. Consider the makeup of the Padres’ offense:
They return starters at all eight positions — starters who don’t need much platooning. Their bench locks are Jurickson Profar, Ha-Seong Kim and Victor Caratini. The first two are extremely versatile pieces, and Caratini’s presence allows starting catcher Austin Nola to use his versatility as an infielder.
In those 11 bats, they’ve got every position covered. Add one pinch-hitter to the mix, and that’s 12, leaving 14 places for relief arms.
Shakeups are coming
There’s a certain foolishness that goes along with projecting a bullpen in mid-February. Pitchers haven’t thrown in game-like settings in months. Asking whether 16 arms will remain healthy during camp is fairly naive.
There are injury concerns surrounding José Castillo, who has thrown two-thirds of an inning over the past two seasons, and Strahm, who underwent offseason knee surgery to repair his right patellar tendon. Meanwhile, both Kela and Adams missed the bulk of the 2020 season because of injuries.
On top of those ailments, the Padres have some transactions to make. They’ve yet to add Melancon and Kela to their 40-man roster, and they might pare down the rest of their bullpen mix to do so.
There’s also the very real possibility that the Padres get to mid-March and — with a better idea of their Opening Day bullpen — look to make a trade, potentially moving one of their out-of-options relievers who would be a lock to make a different club.
An early projection
As noted above, it’s foolish to project bullpen construction in mid-February. But what the heck, why not? Presuming a fully healthy roster (also foolish!), here’s a guess at the relief arms the Padres carry on Opening Day:
The most noteworthy absences are left-handers Hill and Castillo. But the fact that both have options makes them candidates to open the season in the Minors.
At times in the past, Castillo’s electric stuff has looked closer-caliber. But he’s been beset by injuries so frequently that it might be wise for him to open the year in the Minors where his workload can be closely monitored. As for Hill, under this projection, he’s probably the next man up in what’s suddenly an extremely deep group of Padres relievers.