Young Pitchers Contribute To Padres' Relief Effort

The Padres have allowed just 3.13 runs per game, the lowest figure in the National League thus far. Playing a home slate in spacious Petco Park—in front of a sturdy defensive unit, no less—would help any pitching staff, but San Diego has a third weapon at its disposal: an elite bullpen.

Padres relievers rank first in baseball in strikeout-to-walk ratio (3.03-to-1) and hits per nine innings rate (6.25), while brandishing 9.46 strikeout and 3.13 walks per nine rates that rank third and fourth among the 30 teams.

Under previous general manager Kevin Towers, the Padres made collecting quality relievers something of an art form. The organization caught so many valuable relief candidates on the way up that their bullpen now is a testament to their efficiency. Consider the fact that San Diego:

• Has enough full-time relievers on its 40-man roster, 13, to fill two big league bullpens. (See chart following story.) Two others—Radhames Liz and Cesar Ramos—serve as starters in the minors but have put in bullpen time in the big leagues.

• Signed and developed just two of those 13 relievers—Ernesto Frieri and Tim Stauffer. Among the 11 others, six were acquired in the series of 2009 trades in which the organization parted with Khalil Greene, Scott Hairston (if only temporarily) and Jake Peavy.

• Acquired relief ace Heath Bell in a trade with the Mets that cost them only Jon Adkins and Ben Johnson. The Padres acquired veterans Mike Adams and Edward Mujica in similar scrap-heap fashion.

So which of the young Padres relievers who began the year in the minors bear watching this season? Three righthanders—two of whom came courtesy of last July's trade with the Athletics—rise above the fray.

Mike Adams
From Indians for Brian Sikorski, July '06
Heath Bell
From Mets for J. Adkins, B. Johnson, Nov. '06
Sean Gallagher
From A's for S. Hairston, July '09
Luke Gregerson
From Cardinals for K. Greene, March '09
Edward Mujica
From Indians in cash deal, April '09
Adam Russell
From White Sox for J. Peavy, July '09
Tim Stauffer
First-round pick, June '03
Joe Thatcher
From Brewers for S. Linebrink, July '07
Ryan Webb
From A's for S. Hairston, July '09
Ernesto Frieri
Signed out of Colombia, Jan. '03
Luis Perdomo
Waiver claim from Giants, April '09
Craig Italiano
From A's for S. Hairston, July '09
Aaron Poreda
From White Sox for J. Peavy, July '09
Start with righthander Ryan Webb, whom the Padres recalled from Triple-A Portland on May 4 after the 24-year-old had made nine scoreless appearances for the Beavers. In the past, his performance record never seemed to align with the quality of his stuff. But it's hard to argue with his early Triple-A showing: a nonexistent ERA and 10-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over 10 innings.

"We lowered his (three-quarters) arm slot just a bit this spring," Padres director of player development Randy Smith said, "and it really improved the sink he has on his fastball. And then with that breaking ball he has, he's just nasty."

That's an apt description for Webb, who already sits at 93-95 mph with riding life on his fastball. His power curveball sits in the mid-80s and gives both righthanders and lefthanders fits.

The Padres worked Colombian righthander Ernesto Frieri mostly as a starter during the past two seasons, but according to Smith, late-inning relief is the role the organization had envisioned for him all along. The 24-year-old leads all Pacific Coast League relievers with a .122 opponent average, and his rate of 12.6 strikeouts per nine innings ranks fifth. He has been in a control funk of late, walking six batters in two outings last week and eight over his past five innings of work for Portland.

Batters don't see the ball well against Frieri, who gets good life on his pitches when he works down in the zone—though some observers wonder if the occasional elevated fastball will get hit a bit harder and more frequently in the big leagues. Working in the rotation also helped bolster Frieri's confidence in his quality changeup.

"We put him in the rotation before to make him use his pitches and develop that breaking ball," Smith said. "But in relief, he's really going after it, hitting the mid-90s and sometimes showing a good breaking ball. The biggest thing for him is going to be commanding his fastball to the first-base side of the plate."

Working the ball in on lefthanded batters will enhance the effectiveness of Frieri's changeup on the outer half.

Righthander Craig Italiano reached a new level of effectiveness once the Padres converted him from starter to reliever after acquiring him last summer in the Hairston trade. So far this season, he has not allowed an earned run through 14 games with Double-A San Antonio. Opposing batters had managed just a .146 average against Italiano, though he had issued five walks and hit four batters in 14 1/3 innings.

As they did with Webb, the Padres lowered Italiano's arm slot, and positive results followed almost immediately. The 23-year-old's low to mid-90s fastball features late sinking movement and his power slider has shown improved depth and lateral break.

"He's the one guy in the bullpen to put a star on," a Padres official said last fall. "This guy has presence. He's big and physical, and he's got everything you're looking for in terms of work ethic and makeup."


• San Antonio second baseman Logan Forsythe was expected to be out for at least another month as he recovers from a broken right hand. He sustained the injury during a "run-in with the bat rack," according to the Padres. Forsythe, who batted .260/.367/.400 through 50 at-bats with the Missions, is fielding groundballs and taking part in range of motion drills in extended spring training.

• Center fielder Donavan Tate recovered from concussion-like symptoms to resume activities. He had been hit in the head by a pitch during extended spring training two weeks ago. It's been a series of fits and starts for last year's third overall pick. Surgery for a sports hernia last summer precluded Tate from making his pro debut, and then in November he required surgery on his jaw following an ATV accident near his Georgia home. He got a late start this year when he tweaked his shoulder after diving for a ball during spring training.

• A supplemental first-round pick in 2007, Mitch Canham has shifted from behind the plate to a multi-positional role that has seen him make starts at third base, left field and first base for San Antonio. He continued to catch about once a week. "We talked to him in spring training," Smith said. "We told him we thought his best role was going to be playing all over the place. We'll find a way to get him in there, bouncing him around all these different positions." The plan is to develop Canham as a four-corners utility player (and occasional catcher) who offers a lefthanded bat off the bench.

• The Padres gave Portland's Luis Durango free reign in center field for the first time in his career. No longer will he have to split time with Cedric Hunter or Brad Chalk, as he has the past two seasons with San Antonio and high Class A Lake Elsinore. According to Smith, Durango's jumps and reads on defense have improved noticeably. He has responded at the plate, too, batting .295/.363/.313 in 112 at-bats with a PCL-leading 14 stolen bases in 21 attempts.

• Portland righthander Radhames Liz, an offseason waiver claim from the Orioles, leads the Pacific Coast League with 11.9 strikeouts per nine innings. "He's got tremendous arm strength," according to Smith, "and his changeup is fantastic. The key for him is going to be fastball command, because when he's on he's very difficult to hit."