The Oakland A's didn’t get nearly as much from the bullpen in 2015 as it did when it reached the playoffs the previous three seasons.
A slog of injuries and bad circumstances led to a 4.63 ERA among relievers after posting one of the best marks in the American League of 2.91 in 2014. They were charged with 31 losses while converting 28 saves and blowing 25 attempts.
The A’s didn’t have their typically stingy core of relievers, playing a big role in a 94-loss season, their worst since 1997.
It was clear the bullpen was the point of emphasis for Oakland’s brass this offseason. With spring training a month away, manager Bob Melvin likes the renovation that could include as many as four experienced additions to help closer Sean Doolittle get back to form after spending last season dealing with a rotator cuff tear in his throwing shoulder.
“I feel great about it,” Melvin said. “That’s an area that we needed to address early on and we did early on - with the power arms. That was an area we were deficient last year. Our organization is very good about identifying the problems that we had last year. The bullpen was probably something that they needed to take care of and they did.”
Doolittle said at the team’s FanFest event over the weekend that he’s entering spring training with no restrictions after spending the fall building up the strength in his shoulder before intensifying his throwing program this winter. At this point, Doolittle says he feels completely normal.
The A’s weren’t the same without their best reliever, who compiled 22 saves and finished 40 games in 2014. The shoulder injury allowed the hard-throwing southpaw to make just 12 appearances last year, which he described as the most frustrating of his career.
“Tough barely begins to describe it,” Doolittle said. “Because on one hand, I knew I was far away from contributing. I’m sitting in the dugout, or when the team was on the road, I was watching the games on my couch in my apartment… And for the results not to be there, it was tough. I really felt for those guys. It was really frustrating.”
Having Doolittle will not only help from a production standpoint, he will bring an emotional lift as well. Since joining the big leagues in 2012, Doolittle has become a team leader on the A’s constantly changing roster and will likely be the team’s longest-tenured pitcher on opening day.
When asked, Melvin didn’t subscribe to the idea that all the new faces will help Doolittle get back his 2014 level, when he had 22 saves, a 1.71 FIP and 0.73 WHIP, on top of being picked as an All-Star.
“I don’t think Sean worries too much about what’s going on around him, how (the new relievers) can help him, I think it’s the other way around. It’s how he can help the other guys,” Melvin said, “because he’s been here for a while now. And for us, is a veteran now.”
Doolittle’s injury forced right-hander Tyler Clippard into the relatively unfamiliar role of closing, which he hadn’t done regularly since 2012, before getting traded to the Mets prior to July’s deadline. The deal brought back 6-foot-7-inch right-hander Casey Meisner, 20, who spent the remainder of the season at High-A Stockton, where he compiled a 3-1 record in seven starts with a 2.78 ERA in the hitter-friendly California League.
But with Clippard gone, Oakland was without its top two bullpen arms, leaving a late-inning void after the A’s were already out of contention. There was little surprise the bullpen struggled from there.
If things go well with the new additions, the A’s are hoping to turn things around and make an impressive fourth run to the playoffs in five seasons.
“I’m excited about it from a standpoint of, the guys that we brought in, they’re veteran guys, they’ve been on winning teams, they’ve pitched in the postseason, they’ve all pitched in some kind of set-up or closing capacity, so they have that experience in high-leverage situations,” Doolittle said. “I think that kind of stuff can help not just the bullpen, but the whole team.”
In Madson, 34, the A's have an experienced hard-throwing right hander who did most of his work in the seventh inning out of the Royals vaunted bullpen that played a crucial role in the club’s first World Series win in 30 years.
Madson signed a three-year, $22-million deal with Oakland. He had Tommy John surgery in 2012 and the recovery kept him from pitching for three seasons before he returned to the big leagues in 2015, when he had a 2.13 ERA with 58 strikeouts to just 14 walks in 68 appearances. Melvin said he expects Madson to be the primary set-up man ahead of Doolittle.
Axford and Hendriks will be candidates for seventh-inning and situational duties, and both bring late-inning experience from their previous stops.
Axford, 32, had a productive three-year run as the Brewers’ closer from 2010 to 2012, when he notched 105 saves with a 3.04 combined ERA. He led baseball with 46 saves in 2011 before bouncing between four teams since. His production declined in his last three stops in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Colorado.
With the Rockies last year, Axford posted a 4.20 ERA in 60 appearances, but converted 25 of 32 save opportunities. He signed a two-year, $10-million deal in December.
Hendriks, 26, is coming off a strong year with the AL East champion Blue Jays, where he appeared in 58 games and registered a 2.92 ERA with a 71:11 strike-out-to-walk ratio. He was acquired in a one-for-one trade for right-hander Jesse Chavez. Hendriks’ fastball averaged 94.9 MPH last season after never eclipsing 91.3 in his previous four years as a starter.
Rzepczynski, rightfully nicknamed “Scrabble,” joined the A’s in the trade that also brought the club first baseman Yonder Alsonso. In the deal, Oakland sent left-hander Drew Pomeranz, player-to-be-named-later Jabari Blash and prospect Jose Torres. Rzepczynski, 30, made 72 combined appearances last season after moving from Cleveland to San Diego, finishing with a 5.66 combined ERA with a 3.36 FIP, indicating he was better than the traditional numbers show. He struggled against right-handed hitters, allowing a 972 OPS and a 661 OPS against lefties.