It's all about Luke Gregerson. Says a lot, doesn't it?
Over the last two seasons, the best thing about the Padres has been their bullpen. It carried Bud Black's team to the threshold of the playoffs in 2010 and was the backbone of a bad team last year as San Diego fans adjusted to life without Adrian Gonzalez.
Gregerson and lefty specialist extraordinaire Joe Thatcher are all that's left from a group that in 2010 included All-Star closer Heath Bell, setup man Mike Adams and innings guys Edward Mujica and Ryan Webb. It's a testament to the sturdiness of Gregerson's elbow, as well as the inexperience that made him affordable, that he heads toward 2012 as part of the welcome wagon for Huston Street, who was acquired from the Rockies to replace Bell.
Gregerson, a right fielder/closer when he was the Chicagoland Conference player of the year at St. Xavier in 2006, was acquired by the Padres' Kevin Towers in a spring-training trade for Khalil Greene in 2009. He appeared in 72 games for the Padres that season, then 80 the next season and 61 last year. He has piled up 83 holds, the most in the majors over that stretch, all while being paid near the major league minimum.
His reliability allowed Jed Hoyer, who took over when Towers was canned, to wheel and deal. He sent Mujica and Webb to the Marlins for center fielder Cameron Maybin last winter and then made one of the best deals at the July 31 deadline, getting potential 2012 starting pitchers Robbie Erlin and Joe Wieland from the Rangers for Adams.
Why Hoyer allowed Bell to reach free agency — he signed a $27 million deal with the Marlins — rather than trade him is a mystery. The question with Gregerson is whether he will hold up well enough for Padres GM Josh Byrnes, who moved up after Hoyer went to the Cubs, to deal him this summer.
Trainers stand standing on the top step of the dugout, watching nervously, when Brad Lidge or another slider-happy pitcher is on the mound. These guys are injuries waiting to happen.
Among pitchers with at least 25 appearances last season, Gregerson (58 percent) relied on his slider more than all big-league pitchers except Lidge (72 percent), Carlos Marmol (64 percent) and Rafael Perez (61 percent). He showed significant wear from the extreme use in 2010, with his strikeouts-per-nine innings mark dropping from 10.2 to 5.5 and his WHIP climbing from 0.830 to 1.365.
Byrnes hopes Gregerson won't become a concern. He has bigger fish to fry in trying to improve a lineup that produced 597 runs last year, the third lowest total in the majors.
Mat Latos was dealt to the Reds in a 4-for-1 deal highlighted by first baseman Yonder Alonso and catcher Yasmani Grandal, and it took only two second-tier pitching prospects to get Carlos Quentin from the White Sox. Before Gregerson & Co. can protect leads, the suspect lineup will have to create them.
•Hoyer was closing on a house in San Diego when Theo Epstein's hiring in Chicago set in motion a chain reaction in which Padres owner Jeff Moorad promoted Byrnes from assistant GM and Hoyer wound up with a five-year deal to be Epstein's No. 2 man, retaining a GM title.
•Financing of the Padres is a concern. Moorad's ownership group is widely viewed as fragile, which is why its takeover from owner John Moores remains under review. The team hasn't had a payroll of even $50 million since 2008, before Moores' divorce.
•The rotation will miss Aaron Harang and Latos.
•Towers made an inspired move to deal Jake Peavy to the White Sox while he was on the disabled list, even though the only piece left from that trade is Clayton Richard, who like Peavy has had physical problems. Richard is in the projected 2012 rotation alongside Edinson Volquez, Tim Stauffer, Dustin Moseley and lefty Cory Luebke.
•Quentin will be the Padres' highest-paid player at $7.25 million. He's a San Diego native and might be receptive to a long-term deal.