4 thoughts on the Padres' bullpen search

February 4th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- The Padres entered the offseason with three obvious areas of need.

They needed to upgrade their rotation. So they added Blake Snell, Yu Darvish and Joe Musgrove.

They needed to upgrade their bench. So they re-signed Jurickson Profar and added Ha-Seong Kim.

Last on the checklist? The bullpen. And yet, as Spring Training creeps closer, it seems plausible that the Padres could enter the season with the same group they finished with last year -- minus closers Trevor Rosenthal and Kirby Yates.

"You're always looking to improve and see if there's areas of the team you can fortify and solidify," general manager A.J. Preller said earlier this week. "But we like our group. We like our team. We're in a spot where we're listening, but overall we like the team we have.”

Here are four quick thoughts on the state of the Padres' bullpen:

It’s a fluid situation at closer

Rosenthal is the last closer-caliber option remaining on the free-agent market, and if the Padres don't re-sign him (or swing a trade), they'll need to look internally for a closer.

Fortunately for the Padres, they have two players who have filled that role with success. The likeliest scenario would see and vying for the closer role -- potentially with a timeshare depending on the opposing lineup. Pomeranz, a curve-heavy lefty, and Pagán, a high-octane righty, offer very different skill sets.

Pagán was dominant as the Rays' closer in 2019, and he looked like that version of himself down the stretch in '20. Pomeranz has less experience in the closer role, but when he filled it briefly last year, he was excellent.

Considering the nature of the 2021 season -- a ramp-up from 60 games to an expected 162 -- it's prudent to enter the season with two capable closers, tempering any workload-related concerns. (The Padres, after all, expect to be hanging on to leads in the ninth inning quite frequently.)

The Padres genuinely believe they have enough

And they might be right. But it hinges on two very big question marks. and are expected to be fully healthy in 2021, and they both have the potential to be big-time weapons.

For Adams, whose absence due to a torn ACL can be viewed as a freak injury, it's a matter of lowering his untenable 15.8 percent walk rate. If he does that, his swing-and-miss slider is one of the best pitches in the sport, and a big reason why he's striking out hitters at an elite 38.3 percent clip throughout his career.

As for Castillo, his injuries can't be viewed so optimistically. By now, they're a pattern. He's pitched only 39 career innings and already spent significant time on the injured list with four ailments -- a right hamstring strain, a left flexor strain, an issue with the tendons in his left hand and middle finger and a left lat strain.

If Adams and Castillo are healthy and thriving, the Padres' bullpen is probably one of the sport’s deepest and most dominant. That's still a sizeable "if."

It's crowded down there

Worth noting in the Padres' bullpen search: They don't have many pitchers who can be sent to the Minors.

Here's a list of Padres relievers who can't be freely optioned: Pomeranz, Adams, Craig Stammen, Pierce Johnson, Javy Guerra, Dan Altavilla.

Add Pagán and Matt Strahm (who are locks), and that’s a full eight-man bullpen. It notably doesn’t include well-regarded lefty specialist Tim Hill. It also doesn't include Castillo, Adrian Morejon, Ryan Weathers and Michel Baez -- high-upside young arms who should be in the mix.

Flexibility to move relievers between Triple-A and the Majors is an underappreciated aspect of roster construction. Front offices value it hugely. The Padres don't really have it.

Sure, it's unlikely the Padres will break camp with a full contingent of healthy arms. Even if they do, some of those pitchers are trade bait or DFA candidates. (Altavilla and Guerra come to mind.)

But considering the logjam, the Padres see reason to roll with what they've got. Maybe Adams and Castillo pan out, and it's an elite bullpen. Maybe they don't. That’s what the Trade Deadline is for.

Why not Rosenthal?

Knowing the state of the Padres’ bullpen -- and its relative inflexibility -- any addition needs to be an impact arm. There aren't many remaining free-agent relievers who fit the bill.

The most noteworthy, of course, is Rosenthal, who endeared himself to Padres fans after being dealt to San Diego at the Deadline last year.

But there are 29 other teams that could use a bullpen upgrade. Rosenthal isn't likely to take a San Diego discount. Sure, the Padres have proven willing to take on payroll. But team officials believe they've gotten excellent value for all of their spending this winter.

At some point, if the interest is high enough elsewhere, Rosenthal won't be a value play anymore. If the Padres are going to add a big-name bullpen arm, it's slightly more likely that they'll do so via trade. Then again, it’s starting to feel more likely than not that they'll stand pat.