SAN DIEGO — With a healthy arm, a major league contract and a new son, the struggles Craig Stammen faced the past few seasons all are fading away.
“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind the past couple years but a true blessing,” Stammen, a Versailles alumnus, said.
Stammen signed a two-year contract in January worth $4.5 million to return to the San Diego Padres, for whom he pitched 80 1/3 innings in 60 games out of the bullpen in 2017. Last year he had to earn a spot with the Padres in spring training after signing a minor league deal.
This year, however, he had the security provided by a guaranteed major league contract, which made spring training a lot easier as he could focus on preparing for the season instead of fighting for a roster spot.
“Now I can be the best I can be on day one of the season,” Stammen said.
It’s been a few years since Stammen had this much job security.
The right-hander from North Star had developed into one of baseball’s most dependable relief pitchers for the Washington Nationals, who drafted him out of the University of Dayton in 2005. He spent seven seasons in the nation’s capital and compiled a 26-24 record and 3.91 ERA. He transitioned to his reliever role in 2010 and found his niche, pitching a league-leading 242 2/3 innings out of the Washington bullpen from 2012-14 with a 2.93 ERA and 222 strikeouts.
However, Stammen suffered a torn flexor tendon in his right forearm in 2015, which ended his season. The Nationals let him go after that season, and he spent the 2016 season in the Cleveland Indians’ minor league system working his way back from the injury.
Stammen didn’t appear in a major league game in 2016 and in 2017 signed a second consecutive minor league contract, this time with San Diego. He regained his form and earned a major league roster spot with the Padres. He posted a 2-3 record and 3.14 ERA in 2017, allowing 68 hits and 28 walks while striking out 74.
While he’s not as strong physically as he was during his days with the Nationals, Stammen feels wiser now and thinks he’s still in the prime of his career.
“I feel pretty good,” he said. “Arm-wise I feel pretty good. I don’t know if I’ll ever be where I was physically in my upper-20s, but I’m not far off.”
Having proven himself last year, Stammen drew interest from multiple major league clubs this past offseason including the Cincinnati Reds, who were his favorite team prior to beginning his professional baseball career.
“It was exciting,” Stammen said. “That first day of free agency you don’t know if anybody is going to call.”
Stammen and the Reds discussed a contract, which ultimately spurred the Padres to increase their offer.
“I have to thank the Reds for that,” the 34-year-old Stammen said. “Maybe one day I’ll play for the Reds but not now.”
Being back in San Diego is a great feeling for Stammen and his wife, Audrey. They now know their way around the city and can continue building friendships they started last year. The weather is another positive, Stammen said, during a phone call from the front porch of his San Diego home.
“Ended up working out great that we were able to come back,” he said.
Stammen also is excited about the Padres’ chance to contend this year. They’ve been in rebuilding mode the past couple seasons but brought in new players including shortstop Freddy Galvis, third baseman Chase Headley and pitcher Tyson Ross. The Padres also signed first baseman Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 contract in February, showing they’re aiming to contend sooner than later.
“The sky is the limit for this team,” Stammen said. “I think we have a legitimate chance of contending for the playoffs.”
Stammen is ready to help the Padres contend and did his part on opening day when he pitched a perfect inning against the Milwaukee Brewers.
“It’s always great to be able to pitch on opening day,” Stammen said, comparing the atmosphere to that of a playoff game.
When he’s not on the field, Stammen is enjoying spending time with his son, Chase, who was born in March.
“He’s a great little boy,” Stammen said. “It makes the worries of baseball not so worrisome. I have a huge enjoyment of knowing he’s around.
“It’s pretty cool to be playing baseball and being parents for the first time at the same time.”