Every offseason we see teams try to improve by trading from a position of depth and strength. For many clubs that means prospects, but it could also be a spare position player or even a starting pitcher. Very rarely do we see a team trade away multiple quality relief arms in one offseason, though. That, however, is exactly what the Padres have done this winter.
San Diego's bullpen was far and away the best in the game this past season. They led MLB with a 2.81 ERA and a 2.9 BB/9 (2.5 if you take out intentional walks), and placed second with 9.6 K/9 and fifth with a 45.8% ground ball rate. If you believe in fielding independent metrics and WAR, the Padres relief corps led the game with a 2.97 FIP and 7.8 WAR, and not by a small margin either.
Given the general lack of decent bullpen help available, GM Jed Hoyer saw that he had not just a valuable commodity but a surplus of it, and he acted accordingly. First he secured five years of an everyday centerfielder in Cameron Maybin by trading a pair of bullpen arms - righties Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb - to the Marlins. The duo combined for a 3.29 ERA with 8.1 K/9 and just 1.4 BB/9 (removing intentional walks) in close to 130 innings in 2010. Maybin, still only 23, owns just a .692 career OPS, but that will be an improvement over the .680 OPS the Padres got from their center fielders in 2010. He should also be very good defensively.
The next move involved upgrading the middle infield. In exchange for Jason Bartlett (and a player to be named), Hoyer parted with four young players, including three relief pitchers. Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos combined to strike out 27 in 24 innings for San Diego last season, and Brandon Gomes pitched to a 1.87 ERA with 11.6 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 in 72 1/3 Double-A innings. Even if Bartlett repeats 2010's performance of .254/.324/.350 (a career low OPS in a full season), he'll improve on the .244/.306/.360 batting line the Padres got out of their shortstops in 2010.
Despite trading away five total relievers in the two deals, Hoyer still held on to the majors' best late game trio: Heath Bell, Mike Adams, and Luke Gregerson. They combined for 215 innings with a 2.34 ERA, 10.4 K/9 and 2.6 BB/9 (removing intentional walks) this season. Bell, a free agent after the 2011 season, is a candidate to be traded during the summer, in which case Adams and Gregerson would simply move up a peg on the end-game totem pole.
Beyond the Bell-Adams-Gregerson monster, the Padres also have Ernesto Frieri (11.7 K/9 in a 33-game cameo in 2010) and lefty specialist Joe Thatcher (held left-handers to .197/.239/.288 in 2010) for the middle innings, plus they signed Dustin Moseley (3.77 ERA as a reliever in 2010) this offseason. Right-hander George Kontos (9.1 K/9, 3.1 BB/9 before having Tommy John surgery in the middle of the 2009 season) was selected in the Rule 5 Draft as well. Tim Stauffer was baseball's best long reliever (1.87 ERA) before moving into the rotation late in the year, but he could find himself back in the bullpen if some of the team's younger arms step forward and grab rotation spots.
Quality bullpen help is tough to find these days, but the Padres have plenty of it. Part of it is the Petco Park effect, part of it is great scouting and player development. GM Jed Hoyer identified his team's bullpen as a position of strength, and used excess pieces to improve other areas of his club this offseason.