Constant roster turnover is a source of frustration for A’s fans, but when it comes to the 2016 bullpen, change is a good thing.
Four of the five expected top relievers in Oakland’s ‘pen will be newcomers, symbolizing a fresh start for a unit that epitomized all that went wrong in a disastrous 2015 season.
The A’s posted the highest bullpen ERA in the American League last season (4.56). Their 52.8 save percentage was the team’s lowest since 1980, and the bullpen’s 31 losses tied for the most in Oakland history.
To remedy that situation, the A’s spent a combined $32 million to sign Ryan Madson on a three-year deal and fellow free agent John Axford to a two-year deal. They traded Jesse Chavez to Toronto in exchange for hard-throwing right-hander Liam Hendriks, and acquired lefty Mark Rzepczynski in the trade that sent Drew Pomeranz to San Diego.
The hope is that the new core can shore up the middle and setup relief to get the ball to closer Sean Doolittle, who should be viewed as a key addition himself after shoulder injuries limited him to 12 appearances last season, just one of which came before August.
The names and uniform numbers will take some getting used to for fans. But given the late-inning woes of a year ago, it’s tough to argue with the A’s decision to wipe the bullpen slate clean.
Here’s a look at our final position breakdown of the offseason:
STARRING CAST: Despite the import of so many new arms, Doolittle’s return to form holds as big a key as anything for this bullpen. The lefty spent 121 games on the disabled list with two different shoulder strains, including one of the rotator cuff. Should Doolittle regain his All-Star form from 2014, it will allow others to settle into their roles in front of him.
But it’s noteworthy that the A’s added two relievers with significant closing experience themselves.
Madson saved 32 games for the Phillies in 2011 before complications from Tommy John surgery led to his eventual retirement. After being out of the majors for three seasons, he authored a terrific comeback last year, winning a World Series with the Royals, posting a 2.13 ERA and throwing his fastball in the mid-90’s. But given he’s now 35, it raised eyebrows that the A’s gave him a three-year $22 million deal. He has to prove he can back up last year’s performance, but he figures to get first crack as Doolittle’s setup man.
The 32-year-old Axford, who posted a 4.20 ERA with 25 saves last season with Colorado, signed a two-year, $10 million deal. He notched a career-best 46 saves for Milwaukee in 2011. Although he’s averaged an impressive 10.6 strikeouts per nine innings over his career, that’s countered by 4.5 walks per nine. His fastball averaged just under 96 miles per hour last season, and A’s manager Bob Melvin said during the Winter Meetings that adding more high-velocity throwers was needed for his bullpen.
Part of that effort includes Hendriks, a converted starter, who saw a spike in his velocity to the mid-to-high 90’s in 2015, his first full season as a reliever.
CAMP COMPETITION: Rzepczynski, who came over from the Padres along with first baseman Yonder Alonso for Pomeranz and two minor leaguers, struggled to a 5.66 ERA last year. But the A’s hope he’ll return closer to the 3.77 mark he compiled from 2009-14. The A’s will look to the lefty to be a matchup specialist, taking the place of Fernando Abad, who’s now with the Twins. Rzepczynski has held lefties to a .215 average over his career (righties .281).
Two open spots would remain in what’s expected to be a seven-man bullpen. Figure Fernando Rodriguez – who allowed just 13.3 percent of inherited runners to score last season, tied for best in the AL – has the inside track on one of them. Rookie Ryan Dull dazzled by beginning his major league career with eight scoreless outings in September before opposing hitters began getting to him a bit. He could secure the final job with a solid spring.
PAY ATTENTION TO: The health of Jarrod Parker and whether a relief role might materialize for him. The right-hander has missed two full seasons after two major elbow surgeries. Though he figures to get a look as a starter early in spring training, Parker could transition to relieving if the A’s appear set in the rotation and if working out of the bullpen is considered best for his elbow.