The Oakland A's had one of the best bullpens in baseball last season, posting the second-best ERA in the American League at 2.94 while also surrendering the lowest home-run rate in all of baseball.
The group can thank the spacious Coliseum for aiding those numbers. But regardless of what some of the sabermetrics say about how much the home ballpark helped A's relievers, it's less of an indictment than the numbers indicate. The A's bullpen played a significant role in the team's division championship and is returning every key member for 2013.
The only potential caveat is closer Grant Balfour, who underwent arthroscopic knee surgery early in camp. Doctors originally prognosticated the recovery would take four-to-six weeks. Balfour appears to be right on schedule and in position to make the roster on Opening Day. He pitched a scoreless inning and reported no pain in his knee Thursday against the Reds.
But the A's would be smart to take some caution with Balfour, who has maintained the same level of intensity in his rehabilitation that he takes with him to the mound. Even if his knee is still bothering him, his competitive nature will prevent him from showing it. With other options available to close in the short-term, it might be wise to let Balfour get scheduled reps in Triple-A for a week or two before letting him regain his closer's role to avoid any re-aggravation. However, given that the A's are letting Balfour pitch in big league spring training games, there is every indication that they intend for him to start the season with Oakland (if he pitched in minor league games, the A's could start him on the DL and back-date his DL stint to allow him to re-join the team in less than 15 regular-season days).
The numbers this spring for A's relievers have been a mixed bag. With just about a week and a half left before the regular season starts, pitchers should begin rounding into form. Of course, numbers mean very little in the spring, but there are some key names that have struggled, while some dark-horse candidates for bullpen jobs are beginning to emerge.
Non-roster invitee Mike Ekstrom has allowed just five hits and two walks in 10.2 innings, giving him an 0.66 ERA for the spring. Ekstrom hasn't had overwhelming numbers at the major league level with the Padres, Rays and Rockies, but given the A's knack for successfully tinkering with pitchers' mechanics to maximize their effectiveness, there's a chance Ekstrom could thrive with his new organization. He has certainly been given a chance to prove himself in camp, as his seven appearances are tied for the team lead.
Newcomer Chris Resop has had a similarly good spring, allowing just four hits in seven innings without any walks. Resop proved relatively steady for the Pirates last year, making 61 appearances with a 3.91 ERA. His strikeout numbers have diminished some over the years, but last season he managed his best ground-ball rate since 2008, which likely endeared him to the A's. The A's would love Resop's spring to carry over into the regular season, especially since he has the versatility to get out both right-handed and left-handers.
Sidewinder Pat Neshek is another reliever who has had a strong spring and hasn't allowed an earned run in seven appearances. Neshek had an outstanding 2012 with the A's with a 1.37 ERA in 24 appearances. His BABIP of .137 screams outlier, but his effectiveness against right-handers throughout his career makes him a key late-inning option.
With the slight possibility of Balfour missing some time, Ryan Cook would likely return to the closer's role in his stead. Cook blew seven saves last year and struggled with command at times. He's the rare fly-ball pitcher that sees time late in games, but his strikeout clip of nearly 10 per-nine innings certainly came in handy.
Cook has struggled so far this spring, allowing five earned runs in six appearances, including nine hits and a pair of homers. He's also allowed four walks. It's still too early to be concerned about Cook's spring productivity, but he's likely to have just two or three more appearances to get himself ready for regular season action.
Evan Scriber's numbers haven't been great either, but his low walk total (one in 37 batters faced) means he's having no problem finding the strike zone. The byproduct of that has been the 13 hits he's allowed. Scribner is likely competing with Ekstrom and Resop for spots in the crowded bullpen.
Left-hander Travis Blackley has had a spring to forget, allowing 18 hits in 7.2 innings. Blackley played a significant role in the A's success last season, being malleable enough to make spot starts while also being called on for long relief. But his struggles so far – paired with the emergence of other long-relief candidates – could put Blackley's job in danger.
A pleasant surprise for Oakland has been Pedro Figueroa. His arm has always been one of the most explosive in the organization, featuring a mid-90s fastball with lots of movement from the left side of the rubber. But throughout his career he's had trouble with control leading to more walks than strikeouts.
This spring, Figueroa has struck out eight hitters to just one walk. If he's consistently able to find the strike zone for the first time in his career, he could be in for a breakout season and become another late-inning weapon for the A's.
Fellow lefties Jerry Blevins and Sean Doolittle are having relatively non-descript springs, although Doolittle's whiff rate of 12.6 per nine innings seems right in line with his remarkable 2012. Jordan Norberto's numbers haven't been very good, but that's to be expected after suffering multiple injuries to his throwing shoulder last year. Although Norberto has been very effective when healthy, the A's have plenty of solid options from the left side, which is good for the team and might be bad for Norberto.
One of those names could be Hideki Okajima, who signed a minor league deal in February after spending last season pitching for the Fukuoka Hawks, posting a 0.94 ERA in 56 games. The 37-year-old was one of the best left-handed relievers in the American League when he was with Boston in 2007 and 2008, but struggled in the major leagues since.
Okajima would be somewhat of a reclamation project, but his contract status makes him a relatively low-risk investment. The A's international scouts must have seen something they liked last season in Japan and wouldn't have signed him if they didn't see major-league upside. Okajima has a 5.87 ERA in 7.2 innings this spring. He can be sent to Triple-A Sacramento but can opt-out of his contract if he isn't in the big leagues by June 1.
As of now, the locks in the Opening Day bullpen would include Balfour, Cook, Doolittle, Neshek and Blevins. That means Resop, Ekstrom, Scribner, Norberto, Figueroa, Okajima and Blackley will be battling for the final two spots.
Fernando Rodriguez – acquired in the trade with the Astros that brought over Jed Lowrie – recently tore his ulnar collateral ligament in his elbow and will require "Tommy John" surgery. Andrew Carignan underwent the same surgery in June of last season and could be on track for a return to the major leagues at some point this season. He was assigned to minor league camp in early-March.