If you want your kid to be a ball player, teach ’em how to throw left-handed — at least that’s the old adage. Well, if you want your kid to play for the Padres, you might be better off just allowing him (or her!) to grow up into a hard-throwing right hander.
A.J. Preller’s pursuit of right-handed power hitting has been a major storyline this offseason: from Matt Kemp to Justin Upton to Wil Myers to Derek Norris to Will Middlebrooks, part of Preller’s focus has been on adding premium right-handed pop. In fact, the Padres are expected to put out one of the most righty-heavy lineups in the majors in 2015. What’s gone slightly more under the radar is Preller’s interest in right-handed power pitchers.
Before we get into his two most recent moves, here’s a list of all (most, at least) the right-handed pitchers Preller and the Padres acquired earlier this offseason: James Shields, Brandon Maurer, Shawn Kelley, Brandon Morrow, Josh Johnson, Jose Valverde, Gerardo Reyes, Aaron Northcraft, Luis Hernandez, Daniel McCutchen, Marcos Mateo, Wilmer Torres, Adrian Martinez, Dari Lopez, Luis Perez, Parker Frazier, Emmanuel Clase, Zack Segovia, Jay Jackson, Seth Streich.
Torres, Martinez, Lopez, Perez, Clase, and Cooper all appear to be international amateur signees, but I counted them anyway.
Preller acquired 20 righties through either trade or signing from the end of the offseason through March, and in that same time he added only
three four left handers. A number of the right-handed pitchers are known for either having plus fastball velocity and/or a power slider, like Shawn Kelley, Brandon Morrow, and Marcos Mateo.
The trend to acquire power righties has continued in recent days, as the Padres claimed RHP Jandel Gustave off waivers from the Royals last Thursday and, just yesterday, traded LHP Alex Torres to the Mets for RHP Cory Mazzoni and a PTBNL.
Gustave, a 22-year-old righty, was originally signed by the Astros from the Dominican Republic in 2010. He was selected in last December’s Rule 5 draft by the Red Sox, then sold to the Royals for cash. In December, Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper noted that while Gustave doesn’t have a great chance of sticking in the majors, the top-shelf velocity offers hope for an improbable Low-A-to-MLB leap:
Gustave’s fastball has touched 100 mph on a regular basis even when working as a starter. As a reliever, he can junk his bottom-of-the-scale 92 mph changeup and focus on throwing a plus-plus fastball and a potentially average slider. The Royals already have a ton of depth in their bullpen, but Gustave has at least a chance to go from below-average low Class A starter to a pitcher who can blow-and-go for a few batters at a time in the big leagues.
Gustave struggled mightily as a young professional, as his first two tours of the Dominican Summer League, as a 17- and 18-year-old mind you, produced the following line:
- 45.7 inn., 9.85 ERA, 2 HR, 67 BB, 46 K, 10 HBP, 26 wild pitches
Hey, he only surrendered two home runs!
A move to the Gulf Coast League in 2012 at age-19 didn’t improve things, as Gustave pitched 28 innings and posted another sub-1.00 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Something clicked the following season, however, as Gustave posted a 2.31 strikeout-to-walk ratio and a 2.68 ERA in the Appalachian League, a campaign that included 43 and two-thirds innings and 49 strikeouts. Last year’s promotion to Low-a A Quad Cities in the Midwest League produced more encouraging results — not so much the 5.01 ERA, but an improvement in control* (only 29 walks in 79 innings) and a career-best 2.83 strikeout-to-walk ratio that Gustave managed while making 14 starts (in 23 appearances).
*He did hit 13 batters and added 14 wild pitches, so the control issues haven’t disappeared.
PECOTA thinks Gustave would post a 7-plus ERA if he pitched in the majors in 2015, and you really can’t blame it. Pitchers aren’t supposed to jump from Single-A to the majors, especially pitchers who have largely struggled performance-wise in the lower rungs of the minors. Of course, Gustave wasn’t picked up for his past performance; it’s the triple-digit heat that entices. Unfortunately, Gustave possesses a power fastball that doesn’t move much, at least according to Baseball Prospectus‘ Jordan Gorosh:
Fastball is anywhere from 95-98, and it explodes out of his hand; unfortunately, it’s straight, and hitters timed it relatively easily. I saw him throw twice, and didn’t see many uncomfortable at bats, against Low-A quality hitters. The fastball was barreled frequently, and I counted seven or eight line drives off Tigers’ bats in five innings of work on Wednesday.
Gorosh went on to point out that both Gustave’s slider and change need plenty of work — this article was written in early 2014 — and that he’d like to see him throw a two-seam fastball more often. BP’s Jeff Moore confirmed that report this past December, but a most recent check-in from Mauricio Rubio notes that Gustave’s been tinkering with a lower-velo fastball this spring that has more run than his high-nineties offering, but that the off-speed stuff is still in need of refinement.
Overall, Gustave’s an intriguing power arm that the Padres would love to stash away in the minors. Since he’s a Rule 5 pick, however, the Padres have to keep him on the 25-man roster (or major league disabled list) all year or put him back on waivers where he’d probably be claimed again or returned back to Houston. With no shortage of right-handed power in the projected Padres’ pen, Gustave’s chances of earning a big league roster spot are probably slim.
There’s a shot the Padres could try to hide Gustave at the back of the bullpen early in the season and see how things progress, but it might be a tough chore for an expected playoff contender, especially later in the year. There’s also a chance, as MLB Trade Rumors suggests, that the Padres could try to work out a trade with the Astros, a scenario that would give Houston plenty of leverage. In short, don’t go out and buy yourself a brown Jandel Gustave jersey just yet, but from the front office’s perspective, there are far worse ways to spend $25,000 than a gamble on a high-upside arm.
In other bullpen news, the Padres traded protective-hat-wearing-left-handed-throwing Alex Torres to the Mets for right hander Cory Mazzoni yesterday. Mazzoni, 25, was selected in the second-round of the 2011 draft by the Mets. He progressed through their minor league system as a starter with solid numbers (he owns a career 3.47 K-to-BB ratio), but the last two years have been riddled with injuries that include elbow inflammation, knee surgery, and a shoulder strain. The profile fits, though, as he’s a righty with a power fastball and slider, and Josh Stein thinks he has a starter’s repertoire.
Torres was shipped to the Mets — a team that acquired two lefty relievers on Monday — in a move that leaves the Padres’ bullpen potentially left-handed-less. Of the lefty pitchers on the 40-man roster, of which there are now only three, Robbie Erlin and Cory Luebke both probably profile more as a back-end starters or a swingmen than late-inning lefties. The other left hander, Frank Garces, might be most likely to take over Torres’ role (as Corey Brock notes). He’s 25 and doesn’t have any minor league experience beyond Double-A, but he impressed in a 10 inning cup-of-coffee last season, striking out 10 and walking just one. He’s picked up where he left off this spring, throwing nine innings with nine strikeouts and three walks. The size and so-so stuff might limit the upside, but he could develop into a lefty specialist. Lefty Chris Rearick is an outside candidate — he’s 27 and still hasn’t reached the majors (he also isn’t on the 40-man roster), but he’s put up impressive numbers, including a career 4.49 strikeout-to-walk ratio and .4 HR/9, in various minor league stops.
Of course, Torres himself isn’t really a lefty specialist, as Geoff Young noted in the 2015 Baseball Prospectus Annual. First, he struggled with control last year, walking 33 in 54 innings, posting an ugly 13.7 walk percentage (his minor league walk numbers weren’t much better). Second, Torres has actually shown a reverse platoon split so far in the majors, posting a .540 OPS against vs. righties and a .605 OPS against vs. lefties (he showed a similar trend in the minors). Last year in 119 plate appearances against lefties, Torres walked 25 and struck out 23, hardly displaying reliable lefty-on-lefty skills.
It’ll be interesting to see what the Padres do with the bullpen from here. There are a good 12 or 13 legitimate candidates, maybe more once you start counting prospects nearing major league readiness, guys returning from injuries, and a potential logjam at the back of the rotation. There’s a chance the Padres try an all righty pen, as a number of the late-inning guys have neutral or moderate platoon splits. It’s probably more likely, however, that Preller and Co. will give a guy like Garces a chance to nail down a LOOGY role. And, of course, there’s a decent likelihood that Preller already has a trade or three lined up before spring training’s over.
Relievers are tricky, often reversing between effectiveness and incompetence by the season (and don’t forget injuries), so it’s good to have a lot of them. A.J. Preller has shown the ability to pull off the high-profile trade so far this offseason, like the Kemp or Upton deal, but he’s also shown that he won’t neglect the less sexy parts of the roster, like the back-end of the bullpen. The better part: he’s done it all while giving up little in money or resources, which is usually the best way to go about navigating the high variance waters of bullpen management.