Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: RPs

Last season, the Oakland A's entered spring training with a veteran-laden bullpen that was built to help lead the team to the playoffs. The 2011 A's fell well short of that playoff goal. This year, the A's will be fielding a much younger, different-looking bullpen. Who will be the A's new closer and who will fill out the middle-inning roles?

A Look Back At 2011

Bailey's early season injury impacted the entire bullpen.

Before the 2011 season began, the Oakland A's had designs on a post-season run. One of the areas they focused much of their off-season maneuvering on was their bullpen, adding veterans Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to an already talented group. Both Balfour and Fuentes were signed to lucrative, multi-year deals and the A's seemed primed to have one of the deepest bullpens in the American League.

Injuries had a major impact on the A's bullpen almost from the outset of spring training. The end result was that the A's relief crew finished seventh among 14 AL teams in bullpen ERA with a 3.74 mark. A's relievers were hung with 25 losses, good for fifth-most in the league, and 18 blown saves, eighth-most in the league.

The injuries began with closer Andrew Bailey, who went down with a right forearm/elbow injury during spring training. He wouldn't make his 2011 debut until May 29th. In his absence, the A's struggled to find the right fit at the end of ballgames. Fuentes and Balfour each had opportunities as the A's closer and both had trouble locking down the role. As for Bailey, he was effective upon his return, converting 24 of 26 save opportunities, but his stuff never seemed quite as sharp as it had been in previous seasons. Bailey finished the year with career-highs in ERA (3.24), hits allowed per nine innings, WHIP (1.10) and losses. Still, overall Bailey was one of the stars of the A's bullpen in 2011.

Fuentes and Balfour also righted themselves once they were able to slot into the roles the A's had intended for them at the start of the year. Fuentes finished the season with a mediocre 3.70 ERA, but he was far better the second half of the season. He had a 1.71 ERA after the All-Star break after struggling to the tune of a 4.82 ERA before the break. Fuentes finished second on the team with 12 saves.

Balfour had a 2.47 ERA and a 1.03 WHIP. He actually saw his ERA go up slightly after the All-Star break, but his command improved significantly. Before the break, Balfour walked 15 in 34.2 innings. After the break, he walked only five in 27.1 innings. His strike-out numbers went down along with his walks, but were still a solid 22 strike-outs in those 27.1 innings. He battled a few minor injuries during the season, including a strained oblique that cost him some time mid-season.

Wuertz was ineffective all season.

Michael Wuertz was another veteran set-up man who was supposed to pave the way to the ninth inning for Oakland. However, he was cut down with an injury during the first week of the regular season and was never right the rest of the year. He made 39 appearances and posted an ugly 6.68 ERA in 33.2 innings. Wuertz's K:BB ratio was nearly as ugly, as he struck-out 32 but walked 26. He also allowed five homeruns.

Right-handed submariner Brad Ziegler was a workhorse for the A's in a middle relief role before he was traded at the July deadline to the Arizona Diamondbacks. Ziegler made 43 appearances for the A's and posted a 2.39 ERA, the second-best ERA of his A's career. His K:BB ratio wasn't great (29:13), but he didn't allow a homer and was his normal effective self versus right-handed batters.

Craig Breslow was a workhorse for the entire year for the A's. The left-hander finished tied with Fuentes for the most appearances by any A's reliever with 67. It was an up-and-down year for Breslow, who finished with a 3.79 ERA and a 1.52 WHIP. The Yale alum had a 44:21 K:BB ratio and a career-high three blown saves. Breslow's 67 appearances were actually the fewest he had made since 2008.

During the second half of the year, the A's got an extended look at hard-throwing right-hander Fautino De Los Santos, who could be a closer in the near future for the team. De Los Santos struck-out 43 in only 33.1 big league innings, giving him the highest K/9 ratio of any A's reliever with more than 10 appearances. Walks were a bit of an issue for De Los Santos, however, as he issued 17 free passes and finished with a 4.32 ERA.

Left-hander Jerry Blevins and right-hander Joey Devine were the only two other relievers to make more than 20 appearances for the A's last season. Both split their years between the big leagues and Triple-A. Blevins was designated for assignment four times during the season, although he was kept on the 40-man roster in every occasion, thus remaining protected from the waiver wire. He had a 2.86 ERA in 28.1 innings with the A's, although his WHIP was 1.34 and he walked 14.

Devine began the year in Triple-A but got the call to the big leagues by late May. He pitched well for the A's initially but was demoted in late July after a bout of wildness. Devine would spend the rest of the year in Triple-A. It was his first season back on the field after undergoing Tommy John surgery at the start of the 2009 campaign.

Eleven other relievers would combine to throw the remaining 79 relief innings for the A's, although none of them logged more than 15 innings. The A's bullpen finished with 455 innings pitched. A's relievers went 15-25 with 40 homeruns allowed and 426 hits allowed. They struck-out 402 batters and walked 189.

Good-Bye And Hello

Breslow is now with Arizona.

The A's bullpen will have a decidedly different look in 2012. In addition to saying good-bye to Ziegler during the 2011 regular season, the A's also cut ties with Bailey, Breslow and Wuertz during the off-season. Bailey was traded to Boston, while Breslow was dealt to Arizona and Wuertz was released. Oakland also traded reliever Trystan Magnuson to Toronto for cash considerations. Magnuson made nine appearances for the A's in 2011.

There were rumors that the A's were interested in bringing in a veteran reliever this off-season, but as of March 1st, the team hadn't signed any veteran relievers to a major league deal or made any trades for one. The A's did sign several veteran relievers to minor league contracts, including Fabio Castro, Jim Miller, Travis Schlichting, Erick Threets and Merkin Valdez. Relief prospects Ryan Cook and Evan Scribner were also acquired – Cook via the same trade that sent Breslow to Arizona and Scribner via the waiver wire from San Diego.

Relief Pitchers Invited To Camp

Grant Balfour*
Jerry Blevins*
Andrew Carignan*
Fabio Castro
Ryan Cook*
Fautino De Los Santos*
Joey Devine*
Brian Fuentes*
Jim Miller
Jordan Norberto*
Tyson Ross*
Travis Schlichting
Evan Scribner
Erick Threets
Merkin Valdez
Neil Wagner*

*Denotes player on 40-man roster

Number Of Relief Pitchers Likely On Roster –7

Locks To Make The Team

Balfour led the team in WHIP in 2011.

Grant Balfour: Balfour (along with Fuentes) was one of two major free agent signings meant to bolster the bullpen made by the A's before last season. The former Tampa Bay Rays' reliever put together a solid season as a set-up man in the A's bullpen last year, but he struggled in a couple of high-profile situations filling in for the injured Bailey as the A's closer. Balfour blew five saves and recorded only two. He also allowed eight homeruns in 62 innings pitched. The rest of his numbers were solid (1.03 WHIP, 2.47 ERA, nearly a strike-out an inning) – if not spectacular – and he has the stuff to be a closer. He will need to convince the A's coaching staff that he has the make-up for the position, but even if Fuentes or someone else is named the A's regular closer, look for Balfour to get some save opportunities during the season. He may also be a candidate to be traded at the deadline if the A's are out of contention. Balfour is signed only through 2012, although the A's have a team option for 2013.

Fautino De Los Santos: When the A's traded Nick Swisher in January 2008, it was De Los Santos – not Gio Gonzalez – that many prospects experts pegged as the jewel of the package Oakland received. De Los Santos' march to the big leagues was halted early on in his A's career, however, when he injured his elbow early in the 2008 season and had Tommy John surgery. Several set-backs kept De Los Santos off of the field for most of the 2009 season and pushed him from the starting rotation into the bullpen in 2010. De Los Santos put up some intriguing strike-out numbers in 2010 for High-A Stockton and Double-A Midland, but a 5.13 ERA made him somewhat of a question mark going into the 2011 campaign. De Los Santos erased those questions fairly early on, putting together his healthiest and strongest campaign since 2007. He blew through the top two levels of the minor leagues, posting a 2.17 ERA with 36 strike-outs in 29 innings, before being called up to the big leagues mid-season. In 33.1 innings with the A's, De Los Santos had a 4.32 ERA with a 43:17 K:BB ratio. His fastball averaged nearly 96 MPH on the gun and his slider was a dominant swing-and-miss out pitch. De Los Santos is out of options, so his spot with the A's is all but guaranteed as long as he is healthy. He has been mentioned in the closer mix, but he will need to show dramatically improved command to be trusted in that role. De Los Santos walked 33 in 62.1 combined big league and minor league innings last year and allowed five homeruns. This winter, De Los Santos pitched for Licey of the Dominican Winter League and he walked four while striking out 12 in nine innings pitched.

Brian Fuentes: Fuentes had an uneven first season with the A's. His overall numbers were decent, but he had a few high-profile blown saves early in the year that didn't endear him to A's fans. The southpaw also had a public disagreement regarding his usage with then-A's manager Bob Geren. Geren was fired not long after the incident. Fuentes lost eight games and blew three saves, but he also had a 3.70 ERA and a 1.23 WHIP. Fuentes' performance improved significantly as the season wore on. Traditionally, Fuentes has pitched better versus left-handed batters, but he actually fared slightly better versus right-handers last season, although he held both sides to OPSs below 700. Fuentes has years of experience in the closer's role, with 199 career saves, but his stuff isn't particularly well suited for the role. He may get the most opportunities in the role early, but he figures to share it with some of the A's harder throwers as the season wears on.

Favorites For A Spot

Can Blevins stick for the entire year with the A's?

Jerry Blevins: Blevins had a strange 2011 season. He yo-yoed back-and-forth between the majors and Triple-A, tossing 29.2 innings for Sacramento and 28.1 innings for the A's. Blevins struggled with his command at the major league level, walking 14, but he had a 2.86 ERA. In the minors, he posted an impressive 35:7 K:BB ratio but had a 4.85 ERA. Blevins has been part of the A's bullpen for parts of each of the past four seasons, but only in 2010 did he spend the entire year in the big leagues. He has pitched well for the A's and has a career 3.75 ERA with a 133:53 K:BB ratio in 141.2 innings. His command has slipped each of the past two seasons, however, and the A's seemed to lose some confidence in him last year. Still, solid left-handed relievers don't grow on trees and Blevins is out-of-options. Some of his struggles last year, especially early in the year, may have been attributed to off-season surgery on his left hip. If Blevins comes into camp throwing strikes, he has a strong chance of being the A's second bullpen lefty.

Joey Devine: Like Blevins, Devine had a strange 2011 season. After missing the 2009 and 2010 campaigns recovering from Tommy John surgery, Devine was a strong candidate for the A's bullpen coming into spring training. Control problems dropped him out of the race and he was sent to Triple-A Sacramento to start the year. He got off to a great start with the River Cats, not allowing a run over his first 11 appearances. Devine got the call to the big leagues in May and continued to pitch well through the end of the month. He began to struggle with his command in June and had a dramatic control breakdown in late July in the heat in New York. Devine would spend the rest of the season in Triple-A, where the control issues continued. He struck-out a remarkable 17 in only nine innings, but he walked seven and allowed 10 hits, including two homeruns. Control issues aren't uncommon for pitchers coming off of Tommy John surgery and Devine has had control issues in the past even when he was healthy. Like Blevins, he is out of options and Devine has plus stuff. It will likely take an injury or a complete control meltdown for the A's not to carry him on Opening Day.

Battling For A Spot

Carignan got back on track in 2011 after two injury-marred seasons.

Andrew Carignan: After two seasons marred by arm problems, Carignan overcame an early season foot injury in 2011 to rise to the major leagues. He pitched at three minor league levels and then spent September with the A's. In the minors, Carignan struck-out 46 in 39 innings and he allowed only 25 hits and one homerun. He made six appearances with the A's and was effective in all but one of them. To make up for the time he missed with the foot injury, Carignan was sent to the Arizona Fall League. He had a similar run in the AFL as he did in the big leagues, putting together 10 solid outings and two poor appearances. Carignan is a hard thrower with a sharp breaking ball. Before the arm injuries, he was considered a possible future MLB closer, with only his command holding him back. If he can throw strikes and avoid the occasional bad outing this spring, Carignan is a strong candidate to break camp with the A's.

Ryan Cook: Cook was one of three players acquired from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the Trevor Cahill deal. The hard-throwing right-hander made his major league debut last season with Arizona. He will be introducing himself to the A's organization for the first time this spring, although A's manager Bob Melvin is likely familiar with his talents thanks to Melvin's time in the D-Backs' front office. Cook can hit triple-digits with his fastball and he regularly clocks in the 95-98 MPH range. Last season was Cook's first as a reliever and the role seemed to suit him. He struck-out more than a batter an inning, held opposing batters to a .192 average and allowed only two homeruns in 61 minor league innings. Control problems sabotaged his brief major league stint, as he walked eight in 7.2 innings. Cook has two solid secondary pitches – a hard slider and a split-fingered fastball – and he induces a lot of groundballs. If he is throwing strikes this spring, he will be in the thick of the running for a middle relief role with the A's when camp breaks.

Jordan Norberto: Norberto is also a former Arizona Diamondbacks' farmhand, although he came to the A's in the Brad Ziegler trade. The flame-throwing left-hander had an opportunity to make a first impression with the A's last season. He made six appearances for Triple-A Sacramento and another six for the A's. Norberto's command was an issue at times, especially in his final big league outing, when he walked five in two-thirds of an inning. In the minors, he walked 30 in 57 innings for Reno and Sacramento. Norberto has a mid-90s fastball, a curveball and a change-up. He was a starter early in his professional career, but the D-Backs moved him to the bullpen in 2008. In 2010, he reached the big leagues. Norberto has consistently struck-out more than a batter an inning, but he has also walked way too many batters. He split his Dominican Winter League season between the bullpen and the starting rotation and actually pitched better as a starter. The A's have talked about considering Norberto for a starter's role in the minor leagues if he doesn't make the big league bullpen out of camp. Norberto's chances of making the big league team are tied to his ability to throw strikes consistently in camp.

Tyson Ross: As we detailed in our starting pitching preview, Ross will be in camp vying for a spot in the starting rotation. However, if he doesn't win a rotation role, he will still be in the running for a spot in the bullpen. Some within the organization believe Ross ultimately is best suited as a reliever, although there are plenty of supporters for him as a starter, as well. Ross had an uneven year in 2011. He pitched well in the major leagues as a starter early in the season, but after injuring his oblique in late May, he never got back on track in the minor leagues. Ross never returned to the big leagues after the injury and he walked 23 in 37.2 innings. Ross did improve his command during a stint at the Arizona Fall League. His mechanics are still a work-in-progress and injuries have been an issue throughout his career, but there is no denying Ross' talent and if he is pitching well this spring, the A's will find a spot for him either in the rotation or in the bullpen.

Neil Wagner: Wagner came out of nowhere to earn a September call-up with the A's last season. In the span of two years, the flame-throwing right-hander went from being shipped to the A's from the Indians for cash considerations to a legitimate candidate for the big leagues. Wagner struck-out 87 batters in 66.1 minor league innings last season and opposing batters hit only .232 against him. He was roughed up in six big league appearances, allowing six hits and three walks. Wagner hit 100 MPH a few times last season and he has a decent slider and change-up. As with many hard-throwers, Wagner can lose command of the strike-zone at times. In terms of the organizational depth chart, Wagner probably slots behind Carignan, Ross, Cook and Norberto, but Wagner has the stuff to make up ground on those other pitchers this spring.

Looking To Make An Impression

Castro has experience as a starter and as a reliever.

Fabio Castro: We discussed the diminutive left-hander in the starting pitching preview. The nine-year minor league veteran has split his time between the rotation and the bullpen during his career. Castro, who signed with the A's as a minor league free agent this off-season, may end up in the Sacramento starting rotation, but his best shot of making the big league club at any point this season will likely be as a reliever. He is very tough versus left-handed batters and could be well-suited as a left-handed relief specialist should the A's find a need for someone for that role during the season.

Jim Miller: Miller was signed to a minor league free agent contract this off-season after a solid year in the Triple-A Colorado Springs bullpen. Although Miller's ERA was an inflated 5.25, his peripheral numbers were much better. He struck-out 73 in 72 innings and walked only 24. Miller was hurt by pitching in the high altitude of Colorado Springs. He served as the Sky Sox closer last year, saving 24 games. Miller appeared in six games for the Rockies and he allowed three hits and four walks in seven innings while posting a 2.57 ERA. The New Jersey native was an eighth-round pick in 2004 by the Rockies. He was traded to the Orioles in 2007 and appeared in eight games for the Orioles in 2008. The O's left him in Triple-A for the next two seasons, however, and he returned to the Rockies as a minor league free agent last season. He is another hard-thrower, but he will need to show that he can do more than light up a radar gun to move up the A's depth chart.

Travis Schlichting: Schlichting is another free agent signing by the A's. The right-hander has been playing baseball professionally since 2003. He began his career as a third baseman with Tampa Bay and then spent time in the Angels' chain before joining the Dodgers in 2008 after making a conversion the mound in the independent leagues. He reached the majors in 2009 and 2010 with the Dodgers, but he spent all of the 2011 season with Triple-A Albuquerque. It was a down year for Schlichting, who walked 30 in 64.2 innings and posted a 7.10 ERA. He made up for that poor season with a standout stint in the Puerto Rican Winter League. In 39.1 innings this winter, Schlichting allowed only four earned runs and eight walks. He struck-out 30. Schlichting's best pitch is his slider. He gets sinking movement on his fastball thanks to a three-quarters throwing motion. As with many of the relievers in camp with the A's this spring, Schlichting has had trouble with his command at times. Given his major league experience and his groundball tendencies, Schlichting will serve as solid depth for the A's at the Triple-A level this season.

Evan Scribner: Scribner was claimed off of waivers by the A's from the San Diego Padres' organization this off-season. The A's eventually designated him for assignment, but he cleared waivers and remained in the Oakland organization. Scribner's 2011 season included his major league debut but was cut short by a right shoulder injury. Between the big leagues and Triple-A, Scribner threw only 42.2 innings after tossing at least 66 innings in each of the past three seasons. His best pitch is his slow curveball, which sits roughly 20 MPH less than his 90-92 MPH fastball. The A's may take it slow with Scribner this spring given his shoulder issues last season, but, if healthy, he should get plenty of work with Sacramento this season and could pitch his way into the A's plans. He is 26 years old.

Erick Threets: Threets is on the comeback trail after Tommy John surgery forced the left-handed reliever to miss part of the 2010 season and all of the 2011 campaign. The East Bay native has major league experience with the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago White Sox. It was while pitching in the big leagues for the White Sox that Threets injured his elbow. An 11-year veteran of professional baseball, Threets has always had a live arm. Pre-surgery, Threets' fastball was regularly clocked in the mid-90s and had reached triple digits on occasion. He also had a sharp slider that was an effective swing-and-miss pitch. Injuries and wildness (307 walks in 461 career minor league innings) have prevented Threets from establishing himself as a major league reliever, however. Left-handers who throw as hard as Threets does are relatively rare. He may not get a long look in camp with incumbent A's lefties Fuentes, Blevins and Norberto ahead of him on the depth chart. However, the A's have never been shy about adding non-roster relievers to their 25-man roster during the season, so a strong showing even in limited appearances in camp could position Threets well for a mid-season call-up. He shouldn't be limited by the elbow problem, as he made 32 appearances this winter in the Mexican Winter League without incident, posting a 1.17 ERA and striking out 40 (while walking 22) in 30.2 innings. He allowed only 13 hits.

Merkin Valdez: Threets isn't the only former Giants' reliever in A's camp. Valdez spent five years in the Giants' organization, including parts of three of them in the big leagues with San Francisco. He originally joined the Giants' organization in late 2002 from the Atlanta Braves along with Damian Moss in exchange for Russ Ortiz. Valdez has also spent time in the big leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2010 and the Texas Rangers last year. The wiry right-hander has a career 5.57 ERA with 59 strike-outs and 42 walks in 73 big league innings. Valdez is coming off of a solid year at Triple-A, which he split between the Rangers' Triple-A affiliate in Round Rock and the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in Albuquerque. In 50 appearances, he posted a 3.29 ERA with 57 strike-outs and 29 walks in 65.2 innings. He struck-out six in 4.1 major league innings for Texas but allowed two homeruns. The 30-year-old Dominican native spent the winter pitching in the Dominican Winter League, where he had a 1.86 ERA in 19.1 regular season innings. Control was an issue for Valdez, however, as he walked 15 while striking out 19. He was part of the Dominican Republic's Caribbean World Series squad and allowed a run in 3.1 innings during the tournament. Valdez began his career as a starter and was once a top prospect in that role, but since undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2006, he has been primarily a reliever. Like Threets, Valdez will provide Sacramento with a solid veteran presence and could position himself as a first or second option for the A's during the season if injuries strike their right-handed relievers.

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