Padres Bullpen Has the Upper Hand

Lefty reliever could be an All-Star ... and trade bait

When the Padres claimed Brad Hand off waivers from the Marlins in April of 2016 he was a left-handed starter who had lost his spot in the rotation and been moved to the bullpen.

Just over a season later he’s become one of the most lethal left-handed relievers in the game and a comforting sight for his teammates.

“It’s nice looking out at the bullpen and seeing Brad Hand get up because you know the team probably isn’t going to score,” said All-Star 1st baseman Wil Myers. And he’s right.

In 2017 Hand has put himself in the All-Star conversation, ranking in the top-5 among National League relievers in innings pitched, strikeouts and earned run average.

“He’s been very dominant since he’s been here,” said Myers. “He’s got four quality pitches so he’s a tough at-bat for anybody. He’s one of the best in the game right now and hopefully he can continue that.”

The turnaround for Hand has been incredible. In his five seasons in Florida he pitched to a 4.71 ERA. Since arriving in San Diego he’s cut that down to a 2.60. The biggest reason is his 4-pitch repertoire is not the same as it was with the Marlins.

“I don’t think I’ve thrown a changeup this year,” said Hand. “It was more of a pitch I threw as a starter.” Instead of the change, Hand is relying on what is now one of the best sliders in the Major Leagues, which is amazing considering he hasn’t been throwing it that long.

“Last year was my first full year throwing that,” said Hand. “Just getting more comfortable with that pitch and it’s really been successful for me.”

Hand picked up the slider because he needed a more reliable breaking pitch coming in to high-leverage situations.

“Coming in out of the bullpen it was hard for me to get my curve ball over for a strike so I just kind of played around with stuff and found something that was comfortable for me.”

It’s become one of the most devastating pitches in the game. According to the statistical website FanGraphs, Hand is throwing his slider 45% of the time and is sporting a career-best 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Hand toyed with the slider as a rookie but then didn’t touch the pitch again for three and a half years. Halfway through the 2015 season he got the feel for it again … even if he’s not entirely sure why.

“I really can’t put my finger on one thing. It’s just something I’ve gotten comfortable with and the grip just seemed to work for me.”

Some baseball observers have even compared Hand’s slider to the one Indians reliever Andrew Miller used to win the American League Championship Series MVP award last year. Interestingly, Miller was a mid-season trade acquisition from the Yankees and now that Hand has established himself as one of baseball’s best late-inning stoppers the rumors about him being dealt are swirling.

Padres fans don’t want to hear about another All-Star heading out of town. The same thing happened last year with Drew Pomeranz, who threw a scoreless inning in the Midsummer Classic at Petco Park and was promptly traded to Boston.

Odds are Hand is on that same trajectory. He’s heard the rumors. He just chooses not to listen.

“You can’t pay attention to it,” said Hand of the trade talk. “Obviously it’s around. You’ve just got to show up every day and play for your team that you’re on right now and whatever happens down the road you can’t do anything about it.”

If the Miller trade is a template the Padres should be expecting a king’s ransom in return for Hand. Cleveland gave up four prospects, including two of their top four prospects, for a 31-year-old with $21 million left on his contract.

Hand is 27 years old and not eligible for free agency until 2020, making him awfully attractive to contenders looking for solid, affordable bullpen help. Of course that contract could also be the thing that keeps him in San Diego.

Young, talented players with controllable contracts are what the Padres crave and if they truly can be in playoff contention by 2019 then Hand is a guy that would certainly help in a pennant race. The fact they don’t HAVE to trade him of risk losing him for nothing gives San Diego leverage.

Now that we’ve talked ourselves all around this topic the bottom line is Padres General Manager A.J. Preller will have a hefty asking price for Hand. If someone meets it then he’ll be headed out of town. If not, Padres fans can keep enjoying the lockdown lefty at Petco Park.

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