9 innings. 3 outs each inning. 27 outs in total.
That’s the sum total of a baseball game. Sometimes more are required but if you are going to win you need to get the opposing team out 27 times.
Not all outs are created equally of course. There’s your mundane 4-3 putout in the 2nd, your slick looking double plays with the bases loaded to end an inning, and this.
But the hardest 3 outs to get are the last 3. Well, maybe that’s phrased poorly. The most important 3 outs are the last 3 and recently, for the Padres, they’ve become the hardest 3 to get.
The Padres fell victim to the Los Angeles Dodgers this afternoon after Huston Street gave up back-to-back HRs in the Top of the 9th. Getting those 3 outs would not have guaranteed a Padres win. But they would have, at worst, guaranteed a 10th inning. Unfortunately, watching the Padres squander late inning leads or give up ties in the late innings is becoming an all too common experience. Twice in San Francisco this week the Padres blew late inning leads. Last week they did it in Colorado surrendering 3 runs in the Bottom of the 9th. And of course we all remember the Evan Longoria walk-off in Tampa.
The fact is that the Padres, who once dominated the late innings and have a soon-to-be Hall of Fame closer enshrined in fans memories forever suddenly are hanging on for dear life in the 9th. And too often aren’t managing to do so.
The Padres extended Huston Streets contract in 2012 through the 2014 season with a team option for 2015. His 2013 salary of $7 million makes him the 3rd highest paid player on the roster, behind only Carlos Quentin and Chase Headley. But despite his salary the Padres will have to make a tough decision regarding Huston Street. Because they simply cannot survive with him in the 9th inning at this rate.
In 2013, Huston Street has the 2nd highest HR/9 (this is a bit deceptive as the only person with a higher HR/9 is Burch Smith who has pitched a total of 7.1 innings) at 2.84. He has the highest xFIP on the team and is tied for the worst WAR on the team. He has given up 10 HRs in 26.1 innings despite pitching in a still pitcher friendly park. He has struck out 15. At this rate, those numbers are going to flip.
So the guy pitching to get the most important 3 outs of the game also happens to be the least effective, most HR prone pitcher on the roster. Hardly the situation you want when trying to hang on to a 1 run lead or keep a tie intact.
If the Padres are to remain contenders in 2013, losing close games is not the way to do it. For awhile now we’ve heard that the Padres need pitching. And everyone’s right. But it might be bullpen pitching they need right now more than starters. To quote Buddy Black from earlier this season, at the rate Huston Street is surrendering runs, the Padres “can’t survive.”
So, who gets the call in the 9th if it isn’t Street? Some candidates:
During Street’s stint on the DL Gregerson naturally stepped into the role of closer. But thus far in 2013 Gregerson has blown as many saves as he has recorded (3). He also lost the lead in San Francisco in a nightmare inning. When Gregerson’s slider is sliding he’s nearly unhittable and he rarely gives up HRs (best HR/9 on team of guys with more than 10 IP). The problem? While righties can’t touch him (.157 AVG) lefties can (.264 AVG).
If closers were chosen by facial hair (why aren’t they chosen that way?) then this would be your man. When he’s not making moonshine and fighting with the Hatfields, Thayer has been a serviceable arm out of the bullpen for the Padres. Thayer can throw hard which is always nice, but he’s also a bit HR prone himself, giving up 5 so far in 33.2 IP. But he misses bats posting the 5th best K/9 rate on the team.
This one is a bit of an “outside-the-box” thought. It’s also not a long-term answer as Smith’s future is likely as a starter. He can throw in the upper 90’s, accurately. A bit too accurately in his short stint as a starter for San Diego as we all saw. But the talent is there. Recently, when he’s not making round trip flights to San Diego for 1 or 2 day stays, he’s been promoted to AAA Tucson. Since arriving he’s made 5 starts, thrown 59.1 innings and struck out 63 batters. Opponents are hitting .205 off him and he’s posted an ERA of 1.82. It’s a small sample size but it’s also been done in Fresno, Reno and Tucson, none of which would be considered “pitcher friendly.” His future is as a starter but with his velocity and accuracy his immediate future could be as the Padres closer.
Quackenbush is the Padres closer in training. Recently promoted from San Antonio to Tucson after posting 13 saves in AA 46 Ks in 31 innings. Since being in Tucson he’s made 3 appearances, one good (2Ks in 2IP), one ok (1 ER, 2Ks, 1.1IP) and one really bad (3 ER, 2 BB, 0 Ks, 0.1 IP). He’s probably not ready. Though if the Padres bullpen woes continue, his timetable may be accelerated.
I don’t know what the solution is. Bullpen by committee? One of these 4 guys? Someone else? A trade? But I know that life with Huston Street as a closer is likely coming to an end. Because the Padres can’t contend while giving away games in the final 3 outs.
You’ll typically find my musings on Friday morning or whenever the mood should strike. Like when Huston Street gives up back-to-back HRs to the Dodgers. What’s your solution to the bullpen woes? Or is this just a bump in the road and the focus should be on starting pitching? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @LeftCoastBias.