After rough 2023, Suarez is ready to step up as Padres closer

March 5th, 2024

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When signed his five-year, $46 million contract in November 2022, he became the Padres' closer-in-waiting.

Now? Well, the Padres aren't formally anointing him as their closer. But Suarez's time at the back end of the San Diego bullpen has arrived.

Josh Hader signed with Houston during the offseason, clearing a path for Suarez to close. The Padres made several additions to their bullpen during the offseason, including two with extensive closing experience -- Yuki Matsui from Japan and Woo-Suk Go from Korea.

But all signs point to Suarez as the team's primary closer to start the season, and so far, manager Mike Shildt has said nothing to rebut that notion.

"He is a guy that has the stuff to pitch at the back end of games," Shildt said. "I love his heartbeat for it. ... He's not going to make it bigger than it is. That's important. The unflappable part's important, and he's got the weapons to go with it. All those things, really, are a nice elixir to be able to go to at the back end of a game and close it down."

The Padres' late-inning formula will look slightly different than during the 2023 season. Hader was one of baseball's most dominant relief weapons, but he was locked into the ninth and never threw more than one inning.

Suarez, meanwhile, has been a four-out weapon. Plus, it sounds like the Padres intend to take a multi-pronged closing approach. Matsui, for instance, is a lefty with a filthy splitter. If his stuff profiles better against the hitters due up in the ninth, Suarez might enter in the eighth with righties due up.

"That's up to the team to determine what situations they want to put me in," Suarez said. "Whether that be four outs, the eighth inning, the ninth inning, my job is to be ready to go. For whatever the manager decides, that's on me to be ready."

After signing that closer-caliber contract, Suarez's 2023 season was disappointing. He missed the entire first half of the season while rehabbing an elbow injury. When he returned, he struggled and then earned a 10-game suspension in mid-August for using a foreign substance.

It wasn't until the end of the season that he began to resemble the lock-down set-up weapon he became during his rookie season in 2022. In 10 appearances after returning from the suspension, he posted a 2.38 ERA.

"That's in the past," Suarez said. "What happened last year is over with. My mindset is being focused on this season and helping the team in whatever way I can."

Suarez turned in perhaps his best outing of the spring on Tuesday, striking out two in a scoreless seventh in the Padres' 5-3 loss to Arizona. He threw almost exclusively fastballs, with one changeup mixed in. Those pitches remain Suarez's bread and butter. Although he's currently experimenting with a breaking pitch, as he often does in the spring, noting, "That's what training is for, right?"

An extra weapon might help Suarez at the back end of games. But his unflappable demeanor is why the Padres seem comfortable with him. They know what "Big Game Bob" can do when the lights are brightest. He played a pivotal role in the upsets of the Mets and Dodgers during the 2022 postseason.

"It's all about the mentality," Suarez said. "Having that mentality to be able to execute -- to have your gameplan and attack. Whatever it takes to be able to execute in the ninth inning."

Worth noting

• Graham Pauley continued to stake his claim for a bench/DH/corner-infield spot, going 2-for-3 with a pair of walks Tuesday. His final two plate appearances came against high-leverage lefties in the Arizona bullpen. The lefty-hitting Pauley singled against Joe Mantiply and walked against Andrew Saalfrank.

"It definitely counts for something," Shildt said. "If you're going to be an everyday player, you need to be able to, as a lefty, stay in and hit lefties. It's a good sign he's been able to do it. He's had a nice spring."

• Facing, essentially, the Diamondbacks' big league lineup, Pedro Avila allowed five runs (four earned) over 3 1/3 innings. Avila entered camp with a chance to win a spot in the rotation, but he's struggled, posting a 9.82 ERA in three outings.

• There are two starting spots available in the rotation race, but Shildt left open the possibility that there could be room for three more starters on the roster.

"There's definitely an opportunity for a swing-man, long-man, however you want to define it," Shildt said. "Somebody that, if something doesn't go well early in a game, we can absorb innings, also a bridge person that can grab 2-3 innings to get to the back end of the bullpen -- I think it's a strong possibility."