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Monitoring innings complicates Padres' plans

Team keeping close watch on young starting pitchers
@AJCassavell
March 24, 2019

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres’ pitching staff fell into two extremes last season. The rotation posted a 5.09 ERA, the worst mark in the National League, and its 3.8 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, were lowest in the Majors. The bullpen was asked to pick up that slack, and

PEORIA, Ariz. -- The Padres’ pitching staff fell into two extremes last season.

The rotation posted a 5.09 ERA, the worst mark in the National League, and its 3.8 wins above replacement, according to Fangraphs, were lowest in the Majors.

The bullpen was asked to pick up that slack, and it did so superbly. Padres relievers had a 3.53 ERA, good enough for third in the NL. They combined for 8.6 fWAR, making it the sixth-most-valuable bullpen of the last 50 years.

Those extremes should subside a bit this season. Big-name pitching prospects such as Logan Allen and Chris Paddack might take the place of Clayton Richard and Jordan Lyles in the rotation. Brad Hand and Adam Cimber, meanwhile, are no longer in the ’pen.

But the biggest reason to expect splits that aren’t very extreme is that the Padres might blur the line between the two. They're already moving Matt Strahm -- one of the best pitchers in that 'pen last season -- into a starting role. They’ll tinker with their rotation during the season, too, allowing for extra off-days and rest for their young starters, while they capitalize on a strong bullpen.

"All options are on the table, from bullpen days to openers to protecting certain starters by pushing guys back and having guys step in front of them in the rotation," said manager Andy Green. "We'll be creative in order to put us in position to win now and win for the future. Sometimes, that means guys getting some rest, and you're inserting bullpen days if those off-days allow you to do that. All that's wide open."

In other words: The Padres' path to 27 outs might not be conventional. But they don't exactly have the personnel for it to be conventional.

General manager A.J. Preller did nothing externally to address his rotation deficiencies this offseason. The Padres' decision to stay in-house means they are putting faith in unproven arms such as Paddack, Allen, Strahm and Cal Quantrill. It also means the bullpen will be asked to share the burden.

"It's a different year and you don't know how things are going to play out, but when you're sitting here in the clubhouse looking at this, you feel really strong about it," said Padres closer Kirby Yates. "There are a lot of solid arms. And there are a lot of guys that are going to pitch in big situations. It's not just three guys. There are five or six guys that are going to get huge leverage situations."

How might it work? Here's a hypothetical. The Padres have a day off on April 5, then they play 11 consecutive games. Their No. 4 starter -- potentially Strahm -- would traditionally be asked to pitch three times in that span.

But the Padres are committed to monitoring their young hurlers. Paddack threw only 90 innings last year in his first season back from Tommy John surgery. Strahm had knee surgery in 2017 and hasn't reached 125 innings in pro ball. Allen is 21.

Looking to take advantage of off-days, Green might insert a bullpen day in that stretch. He did so on occasion last season, generally starting with Strahm before a left-right mix to best exploit matchups.

This year, righties Robert Stock and Adam Warren and lefty Robbie Erlin are all capable of pitching multiple innings. All three could earn spot starts.

"We enjoyed those days, because we understood we had a very good chance of winning," Yates said. "To do that for a 162-game span, that's a different kind of thing. But if you can pick your times to do that with us, it's going to work."

Bullpen days aside, Green will have a shorter leash with some young starters -- especially when off-days don't fall kindly. Strahm will always be monitored closely. But Paddack, Allen and Quantrill, who have spent their entire careers as starters, might be pushed occasionally. The Padres will probably do so only when there's an extra day of rest either before or after the start.

Once the Padres reach their bullpen, Green won’t play by the book. He flipped Hand and Yates somewhat regularly last season when the matchups called for it. This year, the San Diego 'pen is righty-heavy. But if three tricky righties are due up in the eighth, Yates may be called upon an inning early.

"We won't go into the season thinking, 'This is what we're going to do: Six out of this guy, seventh is this guy, eighth is this guy, ninth is this guy,'" Green said. "It'll all be dictated by where we are in the lineup, how fresh our guys are, who's been throwing the ball well lately and who we like in those situations."

It isn't conventional. But it's designed to maximize the Padres' strengths: an excellent bullpen and high-upside young arms.

AJ Cassavell covers the Padres for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.