When in doubt, start stockpiling relievers.
That seemed to be the philosophy of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane during the thrust of this busy offseason. The A’s, who have boasted one of the American League’s deepest bullpens in recent seasons, let All-Star closer Grant Balfour leave via free agency. But they added three relievers through trades – closer Jim Johnson from Baltimore, setup man Luke Gregerson from San Diego and lefty Fernando Abad from Washington.
All are expected to play important roles for a relief corps that ranked third in the A.L. with a 3.22 ERA last season.
“I think we had a good bullpen last year,” Beane said, “but I think we have a chance to be even better. The best way to improve the starting rotation is to improve the bullpen.”
Along with the above mentioned pitchers, the A’s have Ryan Cook and lefty Sean Doolittle – last season’s primary setup men – as well as Dan Otero, who was a surprise emergence in 2013. Such depth will allow manager Bob Melvin to start playing matchups as early as the sixth inning if he wishes. That’s important considering the rotation lost an effective innings-eater in Bartolo Colon, who signed with the New York Mets.
Here’s a closer look at the A’s bullpen:
STARRING CAST: The 6-foot-6 Johnson didn’t take over as Baltimore’s closer until 2012, and he promptly set an Orioles record with 51 saves. He backed it up with 50 more last season, and his 101 saves leads the majors over the past two years. Johnson navigates the ninth inning differently than Balfour. For starters, you won’t find him spewing obscenities as he circles the mound preparing to make his next pitch. And in contrast to Balfour, a fly-ball pitcher who rang up the strikeouts, Johnson features a power sinker that gets hitters to beat the ball into the ground. That could prove useful for an A’s team that turned just 112 double plays last season, the fewest by an Oakland team in a non-strike season. Johnson threw 7 2/3 more innings than Balfour last season yet issued fewer walks (22 to 29) and surrendered fewer homers (5 to 7). The downside: Johnson’s nine blown saves led the majors. But he steadied the ship after a disastrous May, during which he posted a 9.75 ERA in 13 appearances.
Doolittle and Cook form a strong left-right combo for the eighth inning, though Cook struggled to iron out some mechanical issues at the end of last season. Otero, claimed off waivers from the Yankees last spring, was promoted from Triple-A in June and posted a 1.38 ERA over 33 appearances. He didn’t allow a home run over 39 innings, the most innings pitched in the majors without getting taken deep.
Figuring into the late-inning mix in some form will be Gregerson, who was acquired from San Diego for outfielder Seth Smith. Gregerson posted a 2.54 ERA over the past two seasons and emerged as one of the National League’s best setup men. The right-hander filled in for Huston Street as the Padres closer for a stretch last season, and he’s been equally effective the past two years against lefties and righties.
CAMP COMPETITION: We can assume that Johnson, Cook, Doolittle, Otero and Gregerson will take up five bullpen spots, so that will leave just two jobs available if the A’s break camp with a seven-man ‘pen. As many as six pitchers could be competing for those two spots.
Considering the A’s swung a trade with Washington to land Abad (in exchange for outfielder John Wooten), they’ll give him every chance to lock up a spot. Jesse Chavez was serviceable last season as a long man, so he’s got that going for him. Evan Scribner knows the commute between Oakland and Triple-A Sacramento well – he’s made 48 appearances with the big club over the past two seasons. A’s fans never got a chance to know Fernando Rodriguez last season, but the right-hander might compete for a spot if he’s recovered from Tommy John elbow surgery.
Team officials like newly acquired Drew Pomeranz as a starter, but given the A’s are lacking in left-handed relief arms, he could factor into the bullpen picture. Josh Lindblom, who came over from Texas in a trade along with Craig Gentry, is another starter who could also be a relief option.
PAY ATTENTION TO: How the A’s fill Jerry Blevins’ shoes. No, the lanky left-hander wasn’t a big name. But when Blevins was traded to the Nationals two weeks ago for minor league outfielder Billy Burns, it left a hole in the A’s middle relief from the left side. Can Abad adequately fill that role? Would Melvin want another lefty reliever besides him and Doolittle? Or will pitchers such as Gregerson and Otero be called upon to get lefties out in key situations?