Ryan Cook's slow start this spring has him headed back to Triple-A. The Oakland A's made the surprise announcement that they were optioning the right-hander to the minor leagues shortly after the A's 14-2 win over the Chicago Cubs on Tuesday. Cook allowed 13 runs (10 earned) on 16 hits and a walk in 5.1 innings this spring.
Cook's demotion to Triple-A leaves the A's with a couple of open spots in their bullpen. With Sean Doolittle ticketed to start the year on the disabled list, only Tyler Clippard, Fernando Abad, Eric O'Flaherty and Dan Otero are locks for the Opening Day bullpen. That leaves three spots still open for competition.
Hard-throwing right-hander R.J. Alvarez almost certainly will win one of those three spots. Alvarez -- who has drawn comparisons to Cook -- had another scoreless outing on Tuesday. Although his command hasn't been spotless, Alvarez has been plenty effective this spring. His power arsenal is suddenly sorely needed in an A's bullpen without the power arms of Doolittle and Cook.
Another likely member of the A's Opening Day bullpen is right-hander Evan Scribner, who is out-of-options. Scribner has a mediocre ERA this spring (4.32), but he has 12 strike-outs in just 8.1 innings. The A's know what they are getting with Scribner, who has pitched in the big leagues with Oakland in parts of each of the past three seasons. Scribner is prone to the homerun ball at times, but he is a strike-thrower and a reliable middle-innings reliever.
With several young pitchers slated to be in the A's rotation, Oakland is likely to carry at least one long reliever on Opening Day. Oakland could elect to carry two long relievers, although Scribner is capable of pitching multiple innings already. The A's have plenty of candidates for the long relief role, most of whom are currently competing for a spot in the A's rotation.
As it stands now, Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir, Kendall Graveman and Jesse Hahn are in strong position for the first four spots in the rotation. Drew Pomeranz and Jesse Chavez are the two top candidates for the A's fifth starter role. Both have experience in the rotation and the bullpen, having served as starters and long relievers for Oakland last year. Pomeranz had a poor start on Tuesday, but he has generally looked very sharp this spring and was very effective for the A's as a starter last season. Chavez has allowed a lot of hits this spring (17 in 12.1 innings), but he has walked only two and has had good stuff. He also pitched well as a starter for the A's in 2014 and was effective in long relief in 2013.
Chris Bassitt is also a candidate for the A's fifth starter or long relief role, but he has struggled this spring and seems more likely to start the season in Triple-A.
The wild cards in the A's pitching staff equation are non-roster invitees Barry Zito and Pat Venditte. Both came into camp with next to no chance of making the A's Opening Day roster, but both have forced the issue with strong springs. The A's have more flexibility in dealing with Venditte. The A's have an agreement with Zito that allows him to refuse an assignment to the minor leagues. Given how well he has pitched this spring, Zito is likely to take his chances with another team rather than accept a spot in Nashville.
Venditte is only a candidate for the A's bullpen, of course. His ability to pitch with both hands makes him a unique commodity. He has been effective against both right- and left-handed hitters this spring. Lefties have yet to collect a hit off of him, while righties are batting .167. Venditte doesn't have over-powering stuff and isn't a prototypical long reliever, however, so he is only likely to make the bullpen in place of Scribner. Given that Scribner is out-of-options, Venditte is more likely to start the season in Triple-A.
Zito may or may not be interested in a long relief role. He has made only 11 relief appearances in his 14-year career and is famously regimented about his pre-game preparation. It may be difficult for him to adjust to a relief role where he won't have more than a few minutes warning to get ready. Zito is mostly coming out of the bullpen this spring, but the situation is different given that he knows in advance when roughly he will enter the game.
That being said, if Zito were interested in a long relief role, it may be wise of the A's to take him up on the deal. He has been effective this spring at getting groundballs and throwing strikes early in counts. He would be a good insurance policy for the backend of the A's rotation should injury strike, and he would be a strong veteran presence in the A's clubhouse.
If the A's did carry Zito, they would almost certainly be carrying two long relievers, as it is hard to see any scenario in which Pomeranz and Chavez aren't on the Opening Day roster. Pomeranz's service clock can be set back a year if he is sent down for a month this season, but the A's haven't generally used service time considerations when setting their roster. Unless Pomeranz's struggles linger past his outing on Tuesday, he is a pretty strong lock for a roster spot. All things considered, the most likely scenario is that the A's open the season with a bullpen that includes Alvarez, Scribner and either Chavez or Pomeranz and a rotation that includes Chavez or Pomeranz in the fifth spot. Zito and Venditte, despite their great numbers, are most likely still the odd-men out.
As for depth, the A's will still have plenty in the starting rotation at the Triple-A level even if they can't retain Zito. Bassitt is likely to start the season there, and Sean Nolin should join him once he is fully recovered from his sports hernia surgery. Veteran Brad Mills will be another option for the A's should the need arise during the season, and the A's can also always stretch out their long reliever to join the rotation, as they did with Pomeranz last year. Of course, mid-season they hope to get back Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, as well.