A big league bullpen is only as deep as the next injury or performance decline. Many teams have learned this lesson the hard way over the past few years, as well-designed bullpens have come apart at the seams thanks to injury or unexpected ineffectiveness. Bullpens are easily the most volatile part of a 25-man roster. Over the years, the Oakland A’s have taken great pains to build bullpens that are more than seven deep, stocking their Triple-A roster with promising relief arms that can be called on at a moment’s notice.
The 2015 season is shaping up to be much of the same for the A’s. Oakland’s big league bullpen is already dealing with a spring injury to closer Sean Doolittle. However, the A’s expect to be able to withstand the loss of Doolittle for the first month or so of the season in large part because of their depth. Earlier this off-season, I took a look at the A’s organizational depth in the bullpen. The A’s still have to settle on the final two or three spots in their Opening Day bullpen. Once they have the roster set, the rest of the A’s depth chart will fall into place.
Left-hander Jeff Urlaub is one of the promising upper-level relievers competing for a spot in the A’s Triple-A Nashville bullpen this spring. Urlaub is making a comeback from elbow surgery that sidelined him for the final three months of last season. Before he landed on the disabled list, Urlaub was in the middle of a strong season. The A’s 2010 30th-round pick began the year with Double-A Midland and he earned his first promotion to Triple-A by posting a 1.57 ERA over his first 13 appearances with the RockHounds (23 innings). Urlaub threw 6.2 innings in Triple-A before being shelved with elbow pain.
Urlaub has ploughed a tough road to make it to the cusp of the big leagues. The Phoenix-area native began his collegiate career at Arizona State, but a promising start to his time as a Sun Devil was derailed by an elbow injury. After having Tommy John surgery, Urlaub transferred to UNLV. He eventually finished his collegiate career at Grand Canyon and was drafted by the A’s late in the 2010 draft.
As a low-round pick coming out of college, Urlaub faced long odds to make it up the A’s organizational ladder. He performed well at every level, however, forcing his way up the chain. Over his five year career, Urlaub has thrown 223.2 innings, all in relief. He has allowed just 187 hits, 13 homers and 43 walks. Despite not having overpowering stuff, Urlaub has averaged almost a strike-out per inning (223 for his career). He has drawn comparisons to former A’s reliever Jerry Blevins for his command and ability to spin a breaking ball.
Urlaub is currently pitching in A’s minor league camp having completed the rehab for his elbow injury. I caught-up with him on Thursday to see how his arm was feeling, what spring camp was like in the new A’s complex, what his expectations were for the upcoming season, and more…
OaklandClubhouse: How is your arm feeling at this point in the spring?
Jeff Urlaub: I feel great. The arm came back just as everyone expected it would. I threw my first Triple-A game on Monday and it feels awesome.
OC: What specifically was the surgery on your elbow for? Did you have bone chips?
JU: Yeah, I had two bone chips removed and a bone spur in the back of my elbow that I had shaved down.
OC: How was the rehab different from when you had Tommy John surgery in college?
JU: There’s a lot that’s similar, but a lot that was different, too. For this surgery, I wasn’t even in a cast. I was wrapped in an Ace bandage for two or three days. We removed the Ace bandage after a few days and immediately started moving it to regain that range of motion. I want to say right at four or five weeks, I began to play catch. It was a very minor surgery. I guess they say that it is the best surgery to have. If it had been earlier in the season, I would have tried to push it a little bit harder to get back and finish the season. But since I had the surgery so late, they had me take it slower since there wasn’t a chance for me to get back and play [before the end of the year].
OC: Before your injury, you were in the middle of a very good season. You made the jump to Triple-A after a strong start with Midland. Was there a difference for you the second time through the Texas League? Did you change anything after pitching there the entire year in 2013?
JU: There wasn’t really too much that changed. I would say it was more mental for me, having been through that league the whole year before I was able to use that experience to my advantage. As far as everything else, it was all the same thing. I had more confidence going into last year because I had been there [Double-A} and I had played in the Fall League and I spent a lot of time as back up in spring training with the big league guys and almost all of my outings [in minor league camp] were with Triple-A. So I really used all of that as probably more motivation because I had had success in the big league games and I had had great success in the Triple-A games to where I was able to use that to my advantage to get myself to do better each time out so I’d be ready to make that jump when they felt that I was ready.
OC: You are a resident of the Phoenix area. Were you able to spend time at the A’s complex during the off-season? If so, did that help you get ready this spring?
JU: Yes, for the last three years I have been working out with [A’s Minor League Strength and Conditioning Coordinator] Josh Cuffe and the strength coaches. I feel like that has been very beneficial for me. Everything is structured so well that any kind of work that I might need in terms of one-on-one stuff, like corrective adjustments, they are there to help me versus when I might be doing something completely wrong, which could end up hurting me in the long run.
OC: You probably had a chance to work with Garvin Alston as you were rehabbing last year. Now he’s the minor league pitching coordinator. What does he bring to that position and what is your working relationship with him?
JU: Garvin is one of my favorite coaches. He is a man that will shoot you straight. Whether it is on-the-field or off-the-field, you can really talk to him about everything. He keeps it between you and him. The relationship is personal but it is also about benefiting you down-the-road as a player. For him now in the pitching coordinator role, he’s great. He’s hands-on with everybody. He treats everybody equally, just like Emo (A’s bullpen coach Scott Emerson) did. Ultimately, he looks out for your best interests. If you think you need something done, the door is always open with him. It is really easy to communicate with him. If you want to change something, he’s really flexible because ultimately he’s trying to get us to the big leagues.
OC: The full spring training camp has only been open for a few days and there have only been a few games, but what is your sense of this year’s spring training thus far? Does it have a different feel with the new facility or is it pretty much the same as it has always been?
JU: Spring training thus far feels pretty much the same. Nieck [Aaron Nieckula] is the new field coordinator and he does a great job with the schedule and everything. From what I have heard, talking to a lot of guys, spring training this year is a lot more fun, especially with the new complex. We have a lot more amenities and ultimately those will help us get better. The weight room is three or four times the size it was. The training room with the new hot tub/cold tub stuff. It’s really a lot more enjoyable for people to go to. If you get your work done in the morning and you want to stay later, it’s not like it was at Papago where maybe the facilities weren’t as up-to-date. As far as the complex, it’s incredible. Every player has expectations going into it. It blew everybody out of the water.
OC: The RockHounds received their championship rings earlier this week. Was it fun to see a team that you began the year with receive their rings?
JU: It was. Even when I went up to Sacramento and during my short time in Sacramento, I kept in touch with Nieck [Nieckula was the RockHounds’ manager in 2014]. Nieck and I have a great relationship because I have basically played for him nearly every year in my career. So I was always checking in with him, even after the surgery, and keeping a close eye on them. Once they made the playoffs, I followed every game as closely as I could because you want the team to win whether you are there or not. At the same time, I have played with many of those guys for more than just one season. You really root for them.
OC: What are your expectations for this year? Do you feel like you are back to where you were before you got hurt?
JU: I do. My confidence is extremely high considering I did my rehab and everything was cleared in rehab. I did the mini-camp stuff and cleared that. I pitched in my first game. Expectations really, the biggest thing is just to stay healthy. I feel like if I can stay healthy, I have a chance to do what I do best. Hopefully, if the time comes and I am pitching well enough to get to the big leagues, great. If not, the only thing I can control is my work ethic and how I go about my business. At the end of the day, knowing that I did the best I could, helps me sleep a little bit easier. Expectations are pitch well this spring like I have done in the past and try to pick up where I left off, hoping that it is enough this year.
OC: I almost forgot. When I spoke with Ike Davis during FanFest, he mentioned that you two had grown up together. Are you excited to be in the same organization as Davis?
JU: It is. Ike and I go back a ways. We have played together or against each other since Little League. Then when we got to college we played together. We developed a really good relationship. When I found out he was traded over here, I was thrilled. Ike’s a great ballplayer. It’s always nice to see guys you have played with and have good relationships with play for other teams and then ultimately you end up playing for the same team. It’s fun. When you see each, you get to hang out a little bit and catch up from years past. I’m rooting for him. He’s a really good player and he deserves a good shot. I think this is the perfect organization for him.