In the tumultuous world of relief pitching, where closers seem to come and go day and night, the San Diego Padres have stood as a model of consistency. For 16 years, Trevor Hoffman closed the door on opponents to the tune of Hells Bells, before giving way to Heath Bell’s three-season reign, until current closer Huston Street took over the ninth inning duties in 2012.
Street will enter 2014 entrenched as the team’s ninth inning man again, but whether or not he remains in that position all year may be less of a sure thing than it seems. Let’s dive in.
Street saved 33 games for the Padres last year, his highest total since he put up 35 with the Rockies in 2009. In two years as the Padres’ bullpen ace, he’s only blown three saves, so his status seems extremely safe (and indeed it may be) but warning signs are starting to show.
His strikeout percentage was a career low 20.7 percent last year, due in part to a drop in swinging strike rate, which fell to just 11.7 percent after six straight seasons above 13 percent. There’s also the matter of Street’s record-setting strand rate last year. Even considering the fact that elite relievers often post high marks in this regard, Street’s record 99.5 percent is a figure he is unlikely to duplicate in 2014 and beyond.
He also turned 30 last August, which in itself is not the end of the world (lots of people have done it and lived to tell about it) but it is a reminder that his decline will be coming sooner rather than later, and his extensive injury history will not help delay the inevitable.
With all of that said, Street is just a year removed from a superb 2012 season in which he fanned 32.6 percent of the batters he faced on the strength of a robust 13.9 percent swinging strike rate. He’s never been a huge velocity guy, so the fact that he works in the upper 80s/lower 90s is not in itself troubling. It’s entirely possible that 2013’s warning signs were one year blips on the radar for an otherwise healthy, dependable relief arm, and he is a lock to start the year as the closer. You can do worse than Huston Street as one of your fantasy relievers.
In fact, in a bubble, Street is probably a very solid selection. But player’s don’t compete in bubbles, and San Diego’s new setup man may be the biggest warning sign of all.
After saving 24 games for the Tigers in 2013, while posting a superb 2.01 ERA, Joaquin Benoit earned a two-year contract with the Padres to the tune of $15.5 million. Street is signed through this season, with a team option for next season. It’s entirely possible (even likely?) that the club has Benoit pegged to take over ninth inning duties starting in 2015.
In the mean time, Benoit will likely handle setup duties, picking up the occasional save. He features an arsenal more commonly associated with elite late inning arms, and although he will turn 37 this July his superb strikeout rates have only seen a slight yo-yoing in recent years (from 34.6 percent to 26.1 to 29.2 to 27.6 over the past four seasons). He managed a career best groundball rate last season, as well, coming in at 42.3 percent.
So, despite his age, there are fewer warning signs here than there are for Street. If the outlook for the 2014 Padres was brighter, Benoit would be an elite option for holds. As such, he is still among the best setup men, and should Street falter (or get hurt again), he’ll be the first in line for saves in San Diego.
The Setup’s Setup
There are some interesting options here.
The Padres have turned to Thayer 133 times over the past two seasons, and received mostly good results. His 3.32 earned run average last season was a career low, while his 23.7 strikeout rate marked a career high. He’s 33, so Thayer is not exactly a prospect to watch, but seems locked into a setup role again this season.
Vincent has a less extensive track record, but he was lights out for the Padres last season, striking out 27.2 percent of batters faced while walking just 6.1 percent. He doesn’t throw gas, and his swinging strike rate isn’t that of an elite strikeout arm, but he did record 10 holds last year and figures to be a key part of another strong San Diego bullpen.
Smith rocketed into the major leagues last season with impressive showings at AA and AAA (a 2.02 FIP at AA, and a 2.81 FIP at AAA in 92.1 combined innings). His run of success mostly ended there, however, as he put up a 6.44 ERA, 5.47 FIP, and 4.09 xFIP in seven major league starts. Questions remain about whether or not his repertoire can work in the rotation. He will likely begin the season in AAA, but could be one of the first arms called up in case of injury or ineffectiveness. It should not surprise if Smith finds himself in the seventh inning role before the end of the season.
Sampson is in a similar boat, but without as much upper minor league success.
Stauffer has split time between the rotation and bullpen over his nine seasons in San Diego, but made all 43 of his appearances for the team last year in relief. He has healthy (if unspectacular) strikeout and walk rates, and will likely fill the swingman role again this season.
The team acquired Alex Torres from the Rays in a seven-player trade last week. Our Paul Swydan likes his chances to be more than a LOOGY, but his success in such a role remains to be seen. (Bonus feature: check out the URL for that last link. You’ll be glad you did.)
Tom Layne was dominant during a 16.2 inning major league debut in 2012, but nearly walked as many batters as he struck out last year. What the Padres have there is anybody’s guess at this point.
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