Oakland A's Depth Charts: Relievers

Spring training has begun and the Oakland A's depth charts are starting to come into focus. Over the past few weeks, we have been looking at how the A's depth stacks up at each position. In the final piece of this series, we look at the A’s relief pitching depth chart.

Note: This article is the eighth and final article in a series that looked at how the A’s depth chart lines up at each position. Depth charts go from the big leagues down to the lowest levels. These depth charts are not meant to be prospect rankings, as a top prospect may be further from the big leagues than a player at Triple-A with more experience but a lower ceiling projection.

Missed any of our previous Depth Chart articles? Click here for links to all of the Depth Chart pieces.

Big League Depth

Primary Closer: Sean Doolittle*
Back-up Closers: Tyler Clippard, Ryan Cook
Secured a Spot (RH): Dan Otero
Secured a Spot (LH): Eric O’Flaherty, Fernando Abad
Out of Options: Evan Scribner
40-Man Roster Depth: R.J. Alvarez (RH), Eury de la Rosa (LH), Chad Smith (RH), Taylor Thompson (RH)*
Non-Roster Depth: Fernando Rodriguez (RH), Pat Venditte (B), Brock Huntzinger (RH), Jim Fuller (LH), Angel Castro (RH), Kevin Whelan (RH)
* indicates currently injured

Although it faltered in several high-profile moments towards the end of the season, the Oakland A’s bullpen was one of the top units in the major leagues last season. A’s relievers finished third in MLB in ERA with a 2.91 mark. They had the lowest OPS against in baseball (609) and the second-lowest WHIP (1.08). A’s relievers also had the highest walk-to-strikeout ratio in baseball (3.25).

Despite those outstanding numbers, the A’s bullpen was not without weakness in 2014. From the outset of the season, A’s relievers not named Sean Doolittle had a difficult time closing out games. Jim Johnson most famously struggled in the closer role, but Luke Gregerson, Eric O’Flaherty and Ryan Cook all had their struggles in save situations, as well. Even the All-Star Doolittle had his occasional difficulties in save situations. He blew four in 26 opportunities last year and had another blown save in the AL Wild Card game. The A’s had the third-lowest save percentage in baseball last year. It was, perhaps, not surprising to see the A’s season end in a game in which the A’s blew two save opportunities.

For the most part, the A’s are returning the same cast of characters from their 2014 bullpen. In fact, the A’s bullpen has the most returning players of any “unit” on the A’s current roster. One significant member of the A’s 2014 bullpen is not returning: set-up man Luke Gregerson. Gregerson tossed 72.1 innings for the A’s last season, posting a 2.12 ERA. He was Doolittle’s primary set-up man for most of 2014. During the off-season, Gregerson signed a free agent deal with the Houston Astros.

The A’s had enough depth to let Gregerson walk and go with in-house replacements, but the A’s front office replaced Gregerson with veteran right-hander and All-Star Tyler Clippard instead. Clippard, acquired in a deal with the Washington Nationals, will be a free agent at the end of the year and is one of the A’s highest-paid players with an $11 million deal for this season. He has been one of the top set-up men in the National League the past six years. Since 2008, Clippard hasn’t thrown fewer than 70 innings in any one season. Last year, Clippard had a 2.18 ERA with only 47 hits allowed in 70.1 innings. He struck-out 82 and walked 23.

Clippard has been a set-up man for Washington the past two seasons. In 2012, he was the Nationals’ closer, and he had mixed results in that role. That year he had a 3.72 ERA (the highest of his career since becoming a full-time big leaguer), but he saved 32 games and posted a 84:29 K:BB in 72.2 innings. He blew five saves. Clippard was removed from the closer role late in that season in favor of Drew Storen.

The A’s hope that Clippard will mostly serve as a set-up man this season, but he is likely to take over the closer’s role at the outset of the season. Doolittle is dealing with shoulder inflammation and has yet to start throwing this spring. He is expected to miss at least the first few weeks of the season and he could be on the shelf into May. While Doolittle is out, the A’s will have to fill their closer’s role with other pitchers. Clippard is a favorite for save opportunities, but Ryan Cook – who was the A’s closer for much of 2012 – will also get consideration if he is throwing well. Eric O’Flaherty could get the occasional save opportunity when facing a team with several lefties coming up in the ninth inning.

In any case, (health-permitting) Clippard, Cook and Dan Otero are assured of being in the A’s Opening Day bullpen as the right-handers of the bullpen. On the southpaw-side, incumbents O’Flaherty and Fernando Abad are assured of spots in the bullpen. With Doolittle out to start the year, the A’s will have two open spots up for grabs this spring. One spot may be saved for a long reliever, which would likely be one of the pitchers competing for a starting rotation spot. For a look at the A’s starting pitcher depth chart, click here.

The A’s have several strong candidates for the final one or two spots in their Opening Day bullpen. In addition to several starting pitchers who have previous relief experience, the A’s have several relievers in camp with intriguing backgrounds. Right-handers Evan Scribner and Fernando Rodriguez have previous experience pitching in the A’s bullpen, while R.J. Alvarez, Eury de la Rosa, Chad Smith and Kevin Whelan bring big league experience from other organizations. Taylor Thompson also got some experience in the big leagues with the White Sox last year, although he will miss the first several weeks of the season with shoulder soreness. In addition, the A’s have non-roster invitees Pat Venditte, Angel Castro, Brock Huntzinger and Jim Fuller in camp and they could make a push for one of the two possible open spots.

Scribner enters camp as the leader for a spot on the Opening Day roster. The right-hander has 61 appearances out of the A’s bullpen the past three seasons. He is out of options and is a strong candidate to be claimed if he doesn’t make the team. Scribner had a spectacular season in Triple-A last year, striking out 72 and walking just six in 47 innings. He doesn’t throw particularly hard (88-91 MPH), but Scribner has always had the ability to fool hitters with a plus curveball and good location. If he has a good spring, he should be on the team in April.

Alvarez has several option years remaining, but he is a strong candidate to push his way onto the A’s Opening Day roster, as well. The hard-throwing right-hander projects to be a very similar pitcher to Cook. Like Cook, Alvarez features a high-90s fastball and a wipeout slider. Alvarez struck-out 61 in 43.1 Double-A innings last season and had a 1.25 ERA. He also K’d nine in eight big league innings in September. Alvarez could be the A’s closer in a few years and figures to play a role in the bullpen at some point this season even if he doesn’t make the team coming out of spring training.

Rodriguez was designated for assignment during the off-season and went unclaimed, so the A’s were able to keep him as a non-roster player. If Rodriguez does make the A’s big league roster at any point this season, he will be out of options, meaning that he will have to be exposed to waivers if he is sent down to the minor leagues. Rodriguez was acquired before the 2013 season from Houston and was expected to be a big part of the A’s bullpen that year. Tommy John surgery scuttled those plans. Rodriguez returned last season and pitched extremely well in Triple-A, posting a 1.97 ERA in 45.2 innings with 53 strike-outs. Despite those numbers, he didn’t get much of an opportunity in the big leagues. In nine innings, he allowed a run on four hits with four strike-outs and two walks.

Rodriguez was a hard-thrower before the surgery and he says he feels back to full strength this spring. Despite his status as a non-roster player, Rodriguez will be hard to keep off of the A’s roster if he is commanding his secondary pitches well and throwing his fastball in the mid-90s.

Chad Smith and Eury de la Rosa both joined the A’s after being designated for assignment by their original organizations. Smith was claimed off of waivers from the Tigers a few days into spring training, while de la Rosa was acquired on December 18 from Arizona for cash.

Smith, a right-hander, is a sinker-slider pitcher who projects as a seventh-inning reliever in the big leagues. He made his major-league debut last season with Detroit, but he has only two-and-a-half years of minor league experience and could probably use more time in Triple-A. Smith had Tommy John surgery during his final year in college and his velocity didn’t return fully until last season.

de la Rosa spent seven years in the Arizona organization before joining the A’s. The diminutive lefty doesn’t throw hard, but he struck-out 32 in 36.2 innings for the Diamondbacks last season. He also had a 2.95 ERA. de la Rosa’s best pitch is his slider, which he uses against both righties and lefties. He has options remaining, so the A’s can send him to Triple-A without risking losing him. With O’Flaherty and Abad already slated to be in the A’s bullpen (and Doolittle a lock when he returns from the DL), the A’s will already have plenty of lefties in their ‘pen. de la Rosa has fared better versus lefties during his minor league career, but he was much better versus righties in the big leagues last season.

Given the depth of the A’s bullpen, it is going to be hard for a non-roster reliever to make the team out of spring training without a few more injuries. Rodriguez is the exception given his familiarity with the organization.

Of the group of non-roster relievers in camp who are new to the organization, Venditte has made the strongest impression thus far. The former New York Yankees’ prospect is the only pitcher in affiliated baseball who throws with both hands. He made his Cactus League debut on Tuesday and retired both batters he faced (one with each hand). He then threw a scoreless inning on Thursday, retiring the heart of the projected Cubs’ order (one righty and two lefties). Venditte never got much of a chance at the big leagues with the Yankees, but he has excellent minor league numbers. His ERA is 2.46 and he has a career 431:103 K:BB in 384.2 innings. Last season, Venditte pitched at Double-A and Triple-A. He fared equally well versus right-handers and left-handers. Venditte isn’t a hard-thrower, but he has a deceptive, three-quarters delivery from both sides and gets a lot of movement on his pitches. He has also always had good command.

Whelan also spent much of his early career in the Yankees’ organization. Drafted by the Tigers in 2005, Whelan was traded to New York as part of the Gary Sheffield deal before the 2007 season. Whelan spent six years with New York before signing with the Reds as a minor league free agent in 2013. He reached the big leagues with the Yankees briefly in 2011. In 2014, Whelan returned to Detroit and made one appearance for the Tigers. He spent the rest of the season in Triple-A, where he had a 2.70 ERA and 20 saves in 43.1 innings. Whelan’s best two pitches are his low-90s fastball and his hard splitter.

Huntzinger spent his entire career in the Red Sox’s chain before jumping to the Orioles on a minor-league deal last year. A tall right-hander, Huntzinger fills up the strike-zone with a low-90s fastball and a solid slider. He also throws a decent change-up. Huntzinger threw 81 innings in Triple-A last year and had a 3.00 ERA and a 76:25 K:BB. He has yet to make his major-league debut.

Angel Castro is still looking for his first trip to the big leagues after 12 years in the minors. The right-hander was acquired by the A’s for cash from St. Louis late last season. He has split time between starting and relieving during his career, but Castro figures to slot into a relief role if he does make the A’s roster this season. He was on the Cardinals’ 40-man roster for much of last season but never got the call to the bigs. He is a hard-thrower but has struggled with his command at times.

Left-hander Jim Fuller is looking for his first opportunity at the Triple-A level after spending his first full season at Double-A last year. Fuller, a former Mets and Twins farmhand, was a starter early in his career, but he moved to the bullpen in 2013. Last year in Double-A, Fuller had a 2.41 ERA and a 68:30 K:BB in 56 innings. He overcame a labrum tear early in his career. He has a low-90s fastball, a 12-6 curveball and a slider.

Upper-Level Depth

Rising Prospects: Seth Frankoff, Tucker Healy, Paul Smyth, Ryan Doolittle, Ryan Dull
Returning from Injury: Jeff Urlaub
MiLB Free Agent: Branch Kloess

The A’s will have plenty of talent to choose from when stocking their Triple-A bullpen this season. Many of the pitchers detailed in the previous section will be in play for the Nashville Sounds. In addition, the A’s have several promising relief prospects who spent a significant amount time in Double-A or Triple-A with the A’s last year. Oakland also added minor league free agent Branch Kloess to the mix just before the start of spring training.

Seth Frankoff is coming off of a strong season that saw him start the year in Double-A and finish it in Triple-A. He was a Texas League mid-season All-Star and he saved 15 games for the RockHounds in 2014. Frankoff had a 2.41 ERA and a 47:11 K:BB in 33.2 innings for Midland. He earned a mid-season promotion to Triple-A. Frankoff initially struggled at the new level, but he finished the year on a strong note. He allowed just three earned runs over his final 24.2 innings pitched and he struck-out 21 over that stretch. Frankoff has a good sinker and a cutter, curveball and change-up. He mixes his pitches well and is generally around the strike-zone. Frankoff is currently participating in the A’s spring minor league mini-camp and he threw an impressive scoreless inning in the A’s 2-2 tie with the Cubs on Thursday.

Tucker Healy moved up three levels in 2014, starting the year in High-A and finishing it in Triple-A. He dominated the California and Texas Leagues before running into trouble in the Pacific Coast League. Healy struck-out 58 in 36.2 innings at High-A and Double-A, walking 10 in those 36.2 innings. At Triple-A, Healy struck-out 28 in 24.1 innings, but he walked 14 and had an 8.14 ERA. Healy sits 92-94 MPH with his fastball and he gets a lot of downward movement on the pitch, which has a tendency to disappear on hitters. He also throws a slider and a change-up. Healy pitches effectively with his fastball and he is aggressive with the pitch, but he will need to improve his secondary pitches to make the leap to the big leagues. His breaking ball and change-up are excellent at times, but he isn’t as consistent with those pitches as he is with the fastball. Healy’s fastball is major-league caliber and he could be a factor in the big leagues sometimes this year. Like Frankoff, Healy is pitching at the A’s minor league spring mini-camp. Healy also participated in the A’s major league game against the Cubs on Thursday and he threw an excellent ninth inning.

Paul Smyth had to endure two-and-a-half seasons in Double-A before finally getting a chance to pitch in Triple-A midway through the 2013 season. The Northern California native spent all of last year in Triple-A and he had a solid season. Smyth posted a 3.05 ERA and had a 56:14 K:BB in 59 innings, and he was a PCL mid-season All-Star. The sidearmer doesn’t throw hard, although he can touch 92 with his fastball. Smyth has a deceptive delivery and his slider is an above-average offering. He also mixes in the occasional change-up. Smyth struggled to throw strikes at times in Double-A, but he has done a much better job of attacking the strike-zone the past two seasons.

A pair of Ryans are hoping this season to make the jump from Double-A to Triple-A for the first time. Ryan Doolittle’s career has been marked by injuries, but he put together a fully healthy season in 2014. He began the year in High-A but spent most of the season in Double-A. Between the two levels, he had a 2.98 ERA in 57.1 innings. He struck-out 60, walked 21 and allowed six homeruns. Doolittle was set for minor league free agency, but he re-signed with Oakland for 2015 and participated in the Arizona Fall League, where he fared well. Like his older brother Sean, Ryan is an aggresive strike-thrower with a lively fastball. The right-hander has walked just 41 in 220.1 minor league innings. Doolittle’s fastball can touch 95 and sits 91-93. He also has a good sinker, a hard slider and a change-up.

Ryan Dull reached the Double-A level and participated in the Arizona Fall League in his first full professional season. In his second full professional season, Dull had a more settled year, pitching the entire 2014 campaign at Double-A. The diminutive right-hander got off to a slow start with Midland, but he finished the year with a 2.88 ERA and a 61:15 K:BB in 56.1 innings. Dull throws a fastball that has been nicknamed the “ghost pitch” because hitters aren’t able to pick it up. He also throws a change-up and a slider. Dull may have to wait to get his shot in Triple-A because of the log-jam of veteran pitchers ahead of him, but he should see some time at that level this season.

Lefty Jeff Urlaub was just getting his feet wet at the Triple-A level when elbow soreness shut him down for the year in late May. Urlaub had surgery and should be on track to start the season. Like Doolittle, Urlaub has an impressive career K:BB (223:43 in 223.2 innings). Urlaub’s fastball generally sits in the 88-91 MPH range. He has drawn comparisons to former A’s reliever Jerry Blevins for his ability to spot his fastball and mix in his breaking ball and change-up.

Right-hander Branch Kloess is a late addition to the A’s depth chart, having signed with the A’s just before the start of spring training. Kloess spent all of last season with Triple-A El Paso in the San Diego organization. He had a 5.90 ERA and a 45:37 K:BB. Kloess has done a mix of starting and relieving in recent years, but he has primarily been a reliever during his career. Kloess put up some ugly numbers in the hitter-havens of Tucson and El Paso the past two years, but he pitched well before landing in those launching pads. Kloess is a groundball pitcher with more than 200 career innings at the Triple-A level.

Other Prospects to Watch

Highest Ceiling: Bobby Wahl
Fast Riser: Brendan McCurry
Possible Breakout: Kris Hall
Moving to Rotation?: Joel Seddon
Best Sinker: Koby Gauna

There are plenty of promising arms in the A’s system who might eventually become big league relievers. In addition to the pitchers mentioned in the previous two sections, the A’s have several prospects in the lower levels to keep an eye on. Among that group are Bobby Wahl, Brendan McCurry, Joel Seddon, Koby Gauna and Kris Hall.

Wahl was the A’s fifth-round pick in 2013, but he was considered a first-round talent going into that draft year. Some injury concerns dropped Wahl to the fifth round. The A’s were happy to sign him to an above-slot deal. With the exception of an oblique injury last year, Wahl has been healthy since signing with the A’s. The right-hander was a starter with Oakland initially, but the A’s moved him to the bullpen midway through last year. Now that he is in the bullpen, Wahl could be on a fast-track. Wahl has one of the best fastballs in the A’s system. He can touch 97 and sits mid-90s. He also has a wipeout breaking ball that gets plenty of swings-and-misses. A fierce competitor, Wahl has the mentality to be a late-inning reliever in the big leagues. He pitched a clean inning against the Cubs in Thursday’s big league spring training game and could be utilized again this spring by the big league team. He is currently pitching in the A’s spring mini-camp.

McCurry, another mini-camp attendee, was a low-profile 22nd round pick of the A’s last season, but he quickly caught everyone’s attention with a big professional debut. McCurry pitched at three levels last year (Rookie Ball, Low-A and High-A) and posted a 0.31 ERA in 28.2 innings. He struck-out 37 and walked just three. McCurry continued to dominate during the A’s fall Instructional League. Not a big guy (5’10’’), McCurry uses a variety of arm angles to keep hitters off-balance, ranging from over-the-top to side-arm. He is an excellent athlete who also played in the infield at Oklahoma State. McCurry finished the year with Stockton and should start the year with the Ports, although he could finish the season in the upper-levels.

Hall, an eighth-round pick of the A’s in 2012, could be in-line for a breakout season in 2015. The right-hander spent the 2014 campaign with High-A Stockton. His ERA wasn’t overly impressive (4.29), but he struck-out 77 and allowed just 42 hits in 56.2 innings. Walks did Hall in at times, as he issued 38 free passes. Hall has a lively fastball that can touch 96, as well as a slider and a change-up. The command needs to improve, but if Hall can tighten that up, he has the stuff to move up the ranks quickly. He is currently pitching in the A’s mini-camp.

Seddon was a closer at South Carolina and made his professional debut as a reliever, but the A's have talked about moving the right-hander into the rotation. His ultimate role might still be in relief, however. The Michigan native has four pitches: a sinking fastball, change-up, curveball and slider. Seddon pitches aggressively in the strike-zone with all four offerings and he repeats his delivery well. Seddon had a 2.84 ERA in 25.1 innings with Low-A Beloit in his pro debut. If the A's move him to the rotation, he is likely to return to Beloit to start the year. If he stays in the bullpen, Seddon is a candidate for Stockton.

Gauna’s 2015 debut will be delayed thanks to a 50-game suspension for a drug of abuse. Once he does return to the mound, he will bring with him an outstanding sinking fastball that reminds A’s bullpen coach Scott Emerson of former A’s prospect Trevor Cahill’s sinker. Gauna doesn’t throw hard, but he induces a lot of groundballs (2.40 GO/AO with Vermont last season) and thrived in late-inning situations with Vermont in his pro debut.

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