The Padres, unsurprisingly, have already been receiving trade inquirieson their relievers, reports Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic in his latest notes column (subscription required). Not only is Brad Hand garnering a strong bit of interest, but setup men Kirby Yates and Craig Stammen are each drawing inquiries from rival clubs, as are some of the team’s younger relievers.
Most notably, Rosenthal suggests that the interest in Hand is different than in recent years, owing both to his newly signed contract extension and the fact that he has now more emphatically cemented himself as a proven, elite lefty reliever.
Each of the listed relievers has an ERA south of 2.50 on the season, and each boasts strong K/BB numbers in addition to a ground-ball rate of 50 percent or better. More appealing than any of that, however, could be the simple fact that each of the three is both affordable and under control for multiple seasons.
Hand, who turned 28 in March, is the most notable of the bunch. Despite his relative proximity to free agency, he signed surprising three-year, $19.75MM contract extension in the offseason — a deal that also gives the Padres affordable a $10MM club option over the 2021 season. A waiver claim by the Padres out of the Marlins organization, Hand has improved each year in San Diego. He’s currently sitting on a 1.78 ERA with 13.3 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, 0.76 HR/9 and a 50 percent ground-ball rate in 35 1/3 innings.
Overall, since joining the Friars, he’s pitched to a superlative 2.43 ERA and averaged nearly 12 strikeouts per nine innings. With an average annual value just barely north of $6.5MM, his contract would fit into the majority of teams’ budgets — even those close to the luxury tax threshold (with, perhaps, the notable exception of the Giants, though a San Diego/San Francisco swap of this magnitude seems unlikely anyhow).
Hand, though, is hardly the only waiver claim who has reinvented himself in San Diego. The 31-year-old Yates pitched well for the Padres after being claimed from the Angels last season, but he’s taken his game to a new level in 2018, tossing 27 innings with a flat 1.00 ERA, a 32-to-8 K/BB ratio and a 52.3 percent grounder rate.
San Diego encouraged Yates to ditch his slider in favor of a splitter (as he recently discussed with MLB.com’s AJ Cassavell), and the righty has transformed himself completely. That ground-ball rate is nearly 20 points higher than his career mark, and the formerly homer-prone Yates has now surrendered only one home run in 2018 with his new ground-focused attack. Yates, who has a 2.83 ERA in 82 2/3 innings and an average of 13 strikeouts per nine innings pitched since joining the Padres, is earning just $1.0625MM in 2018 and is arbitration-eligible through the 2020 season.
Stammen, meanwhile, parlayed a minor league deal with the Padres prior to the 2017 season into a two-year, $4.5MM deal spanning the 2018-19 seasons. And after posting a 3.14 ERA with 8.3 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 1.34 HR/9 and a 51.6 percent ground-ball rate in 80 1/3 innings of relief last year, Stammen has further elevated his status in 2018.
So far, the 34-year-old has logged a 2.30 ERA with a career-best 9.5 K/9 against 1.4 BB/9 and 0.29 HR/9 with a 50 percent ground-ball rate through 31 1/3 frames. Stammen’s velocity remains in the low 90s (91.2 mph average fastball), but his 12.2 percent swinging-strike rate and 35.6 percent chase rate resemble his peak form with the Nationals from a few years back. Beyond that, he’s pounding the zone more than ever, evidenced not only by his walk rate but his superb 69.1 percent first-pitch strike rate. At $2.25MM both this year and next (plus up to $1MM worth of incentives each season), he’s a bargain that any team could afford.
Rosenthal notes, too, that some of the Padres’ younger relievers have also attracted interest. While specific names aren’t listed, it stands to reason that clubs may have checked in on rookie Adam Cimber, who went from an afterthought to a potential All-Star seemingly overnight. Former starter Robbie Erlin has displayed the best control of his career while working as a multi-inning lefty, while right-hander Phil Maton has impressed since joining the club as well.
[Related: San Diego Padres depth chart]
Of course, it’s hardly certain what route the Padres will take this summer. Preller has surprised onlookers in the past by holding onto Hand at multiple trade deadlines, and he opted not to trade Tyson Ross in 2016 and Jhoulys Chacin last season. With an emerging young core, perhaps Preller and his staff would prefer to hang onto their impressive collection of controllable bullpen arms with an eye toward contending in the future.
It’s also not out of the question that the Padres end up viewing themselves as at least fringe contenders during the current season. While such a notion will elicit plenty of eye-rolling, the Friars are 11-4 over their past 15 games and now sit 5.5 games back in the NL West. They’re still four games under .500, so a serious run seems far-fetched, though they’re also on the verge of getting Joey Lucchesi, Wil Myers and Franchy Cordero back from the disabled list, as well.