At this time last year, Ryan Madson couldn’t have been sure he’d wear a major league uniform again, much less own a World Series ring.
His was an incredible 2015 story, and now the reliever is looking to extend the storybook second phase of his career with the A’s. He and fellow reliever John Axford had their free agent deals finalized with Oakland on Friday.
It’s the culmination of a grand plan for the A’s and their bullpen. They’ve committed a combined five years and $32 million guaranteed for two relievers who both come with substantial closer experience, a safety net in light of Sean Doolittle’s shoulder issues last season. All told, Oakland’s relief corps – knocked around like a piñata in 2015 – will have at least four new faces in what’s expected to be a seven-man bullpen.
“At this point Sean is the closer. I don’t think there’s going to be any confusion about that,” general manager David Forst said. “But we obviously saw with last year that we needed to have a plan B and C in place.”
One of those backup options will be the 35-year-old Madson, who grew so frustrated with the hurdles he encountered following Tommy John surgery in 2012 that he decided to retire after stalled comebacks in 2013 and 2014.
He was asked by Royals executive Jim Fregosi Jr., who had signed him years before with the Phillies, to tutor a high school pitcher by the name of Johnny Morell, who lived in Temecula as did Madson. When they began working out last June, it rekindled Madson’s competitive fire.
“I had to throw long toss with him,” Madson said. “It was a test for my arm but also a test for my heart. We worked out in June. By August, him and his dad were saying, ‘Hey, are you sure you don’t want to play again?’”
That led to a minor league contract with Kansas City, and Madson becoming a key cog in the bullpen of the eventual World Series champs.
Last season unfolded like a dream. The next question is whether it’s realistic for Madson to continue pumping his fastball in the mid 90’s and retiring hitters over the life of his three-year $22 million contract. He’ll be 38 when it expires.
Forst said the A’s did their due diligence examining Madson’s medical history and track record, but he’s not the only pitcher in his mid-30’s that Oakland is hitching its wagon to. Fellow 35-year-old Rich Hill was signed to a one-year $6 million deal, and will fill a rotation spot despite not being a full-time big league starter since 2009. Hill was dominant in four starts last September for Boston, but that’s not a large body of work for the longtime reliever.
Billy Beane, the A’s executive VP of baseball operations, said his team is trying to combat bigger spending teams by making wise – some might say risky – investments in “comeback” players that other clubs might not pursue as aggressively.
“If we’re right, we’re gonna be smart,” Beane said. “If we’re wrong, you’ll know why we’re wrong -- because we dealt with a small sample size.”
Axford, 32, will combine with Madson, fellow hard thrower Liam Hendriks and lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski to form what the A’s hope is a strong nucleus to get leads to Doolittle in the ninth.
Axford rang up 46 saves with Milwaukee in 2011 and had 25 with Colorado last season before getting designated for assignment. Walks always have been an issue – he averaged 5.2 per nine innings last season – but one National League scout gave a strong report on Axford.
“Power arm, swing-and-miss stuff,” the scout said. “He can pitch at the back end (but) preferably setup (due to) shaky command. Funky and deceptive.”
Axford had concerns that extended far away from the mound last spring when his then-2 year-old son Jameson was bitten in the foot by a rattlesnake. Axford left the Rockies for about a 10-day period to be with his son.
“He spent a month in ICU,” Axford said. “We worried initially about him surviving it. Then it turned to possible leg amputation, to foot amputation, to toe amputation. Each week the prognosis got better and better.”
Jameson is now doing quite well, Axford said, and the reliever is excited about joining the A’s.
As Oakland continues its search for a starting pitcher, Forst reiterated that trade talks continue even with the Winter Meetings in the rear-view mirror. He didn’t get into specifics Friday but hinted during the Meetings that the infield may not necessarily be settled.
“I would hope that between now and the end of the year we still have an opportunity to make some moves,” he said.