Spring Training Battles: Relievers

As spring training draws near, we will be taking a look at the guys battling for a spot on the 25-man roster. Although the A's currently appear to have their 25-man roster set, injuries or trades could open up a spot before Opening Day. In the second of our series, we look at the nine relievers in the A's camp who will be hoping to latch on as the 25th man on the A's roster.

The Oakland A's were hurt tremendously last season when they suffered injuries to their starting rotation and bullpen. In particular, the bullpen was hard hit in late April through May when closer Octavio Dotel and set-up man Kiko Calero were both on the shelf with injuries. The A's also lost closer Huston Street and set-up man Justin Duchscherer at various points during the season with minor injuries. In addition, the A's had injuries to their starting rotation (namely starter Rich Harden), which impacted their bullpen flexibility at various points during the season.

As we mentioned in the first article of this series, the theme of the A's off-season was adding depth. The A's not only added depth on the offensive-side of the ball, but they also beefed up their pitching ranks to guard against the injury problems from last season. Oakland signed starter Esteban Loaiza, which had a domino effect on the starting rotation and the bullpen, pushing last year's fifth starter Kirk Saarloos to the bullpen and all-but guaranteeing last year's spot starter Joe Kennedy will remain in the bullpen. The A's also surprised some pundits (namely this one) by re-signing veteran reliever Jay Witasick to a two-year contract.

Going into spring training, the A's bullpen appears to be set with Street as the closer, Calero and Duchscherer as the set-up men, Witasick as the sixth and seventh inning guy, Kennedy as the lefty and Saarloos as the long-man. However, as the A's learned in camp last season when set-up man Chad Bradford suffered a serious back injury, what seems like a set bullpen at the outset of camp can change dramatically. And with both Calero and Duchscherer having serious reoccurring injuries to their elbow and back, respectively, it stands to reason that the A's will look to their minor leagues for bullpen help at least once this season.

The A's also may receive an offer from a team desperate for starting pitching help that is too hard to refuse for either Saarloos or Kennedy, opening up their spot on the roster. Consequently, the following relievers will all be battling to make an impression on the A's coaching staff so that they are the first pitchers the A's turn to when a spot opens up. Let's take a look at what each pitcher has to offer.

Ron Flores, LHP

Flores will be attending his first major league spring training camp this year, but the A's coaching staff is already well aware of his talents, as he put them on display in three tours of duty with Oakland last season. A 2000 draft choice, Flores was often a forgotten man in the A's system until last season, when injuries allowed him to prove himself on the major league level. Flores was used primarily as a lefty specialist in Oakland, and he acquitted himself well, allowing lefties to hit only .154 off of him. Overall, he gave up only one run in 8.2 innings of work over 11 appearances. In Sacramento, Flores had a 2.39 ERA in 60.2 innings.

Flores opened a lot of eyes last season and he could tempt the A's to move the expensive Kennedy if Flores had a good spring. He'll need to show manager Ken Macha that he trusts his stuff enough to attack the strike zone and that he can handcuff lefties. If he does that, Flores will all but be guaranteed to spend some time in Oakland this year, whether it be at the outset or midway through the season.

Santiago Casilla (aka Jairo Garcia), RHP

Casilla/Garcia had a strange off-season, to say the least. He made a lot of A's coaches very excited with an outstanding Dominican Winter League season that saw him continue to pile up the strikeouts while lowering his walk and homerun rates. However, that positive momentum was ruined with the announcement that he was actually two years and ten months older than originally thought. Casilla/Garcia could be late to arrive to camp, as he has to reapply for an American work visa under his real name. Once he arrives, he'll need to prove that the progress he made over the winter was permanent.

Although Casilla/Garcia is not the prospect he was when we all thought he was 23 years old, he still has a chance to be an excellent relief pitcher in the major leagues. The strongly built right-hander has a plus fastball to team with his plus-plus slider. He has been compared to former A's closer Octavio Dotel with his fastball-slider combination. The A's have very few hard throwers in their bullpen (Witasick being the hardest thrower), so Casilla/Garcia's repertoire would be a nice compliment to the A's current bullpen. He almost assuredly won't start the year in Oakland, but he could make himself the first option to replace a Calero or Duchscherer if either were to be felled by injuries if he has a strong spring and a good start to his year in Sacramento. He'll need to keep the walks down and the ball in the park to earn an invitation to Oakland.

Chris Mabeus, RHP

Mabeus entered last spring training with a real shot to make an impression on the A's coaching staff, but nagging injuries caused him to have a poor spring. Those injuries carried over to the regular season and he had a down year compared to his previous few seasons. Mabeus still struck out more than a batter per inning, but his walk ratio jumped from 2.12 to 3.48 per nine innings.

Mabues is a groundball pitcher who throws a heavy, low to mid-90s fastball and a split-finger that keeps the ball on the ground. He also has an average slider. He has fluctuated between having excellent and average control during his minor league career, and he'll need to show good control during spring training to peak the A's interest. He, too, will almost undoubtedly start the year in AAA, but he could push himself ahead of Casilla/Garcia in the pecking order of right-handed relievers at AAA with a good spring and a solid start to his year at AAA.

Matt Roney, RHP

Roney was acquired this off-season as a minor league free agent and he was added to the 40-man roster. He is a former first round pick of the Colorado Rockies who spent last season split between the Detroit Tigers and Texas Rangers organizations. Roney had spent most of his career as a reliever, but he made the transition to the bullpen in 2005 with good success. It is presumed that he will spend the 2006 season in the bullpen, as well.

Roney is a big bodied pitcher who throws a heavy mid-90s fastball and a sinker, slider and curveball. His fastball is his best pitch and he mainly uses his other three pitches to keep hitters from sitting dead-red. He has had injuries problems in the past, although he has been primarily healthy over the past few seasons. Roney spent all of the 2003 season in the major leagues with Detroit, splitting time in the Tigers' bullpen and starting rotation. Although his overall numbers weren't pretty, he held his own as a reliever for the Tigers. The A's will be getting their first extended look at Roney, so he'll be aiming to make a solid impression on the Oakland coaching staff this spring.

Juan Cruz, RHP

The enigmatic Cruz returns to Phoenix for his second spring training with Oakland, but he is in a much different position this time around. Last season, Cruz was expected to be one of the A's top set-up men and he was guaranteed a spot on the A's roster going into the season. However, after a disastrous campaign that saw him go 0-3 with a 7.44 ERA in 28 appearances with Oakland, he has lost his spot on the A's 25-man roster.

Cruz infuriated the A's with his refusal to attack the strike zone last season, and he didn't appear to improve in that regard during the winter league season in the Dominican Republic. He has amazing stuff, throwing in the high-90s with regularity, but he rarely seems to trust it. Cruz dominated AAA when he was sent down to Sacramento, but it remains to be seen whether he has the mental make-up to be a major league pitcher. He would have to dominate in spring training to get back on the A's radar at this point and it wouldn't be surprising if the A's used spring training to showcase Cruz to other teams who may still want to take a flier on his immense talents.

Jason Karnuth, RHP

Karnuth was another minor league free agent pick-up this off-season. He isn't on the 40-man roster, but he has received a non-roster invite to camp. Karnuth was in the Detroit chain last season and he earned a September call-up with the Tigers, appearing in three games. Karnuth also made four appearances with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2001. The right-hander began his career with St. Louis and he has spent time in the Chicago Cubs and Detroit organizations, as well.

Karnuth is a classic finesse pitcher who relies on his control and his team's defense to succeed. He has averaged only 5.40 strikeouts per nine innings during his minor league career. Like Roney, Karnuth will be looking to make a strong first impression with the A's coaching staff.

Randy Keisler, LHP

Keisler is probably a familiar name to most baseball fans because he was a much talked about Yankees prospect a few years back. The left-hander made 10 starts for the Yankees in 2001, going 1-2 with a 6.22 ERA. He also appeared in the big leagues with the Padres briefly in 2003 and last season with the Reds, where he went 2-1 with a 6.27 ERA in 24 appearances.

Keisler has a high-80s, low-90s fastball, a curveball and a change-up. He has spent most of his career as a starter, but at this stage (he is now 30), he is more likely to make an impact as a reliever. However, Keisler struggled against lefties last season, allowing a .304 BAA. During his major league career, Keisler has consistently done better against righties and, consequently, he doesn't project as a situational left-hander. He will give the A's nice insurance in AAA, as he has as much major league experience as nearly all of the A's AAA relievers.

Alex Santos, RHP

Santos came out of nowhere last season to post impressive numbers at high-A Stockton and AA-Midland before ending the year with a cup of coffee at AAA-Sacramento. The right-hander saved 26 games and struck out 66 in 61.2 innings. He also had a steroid suspension at mid-season. Santos is a former star pitcher for the Miami Hurricanes who found himself in the Independent Leagues before signing on with Oakland. He is a long-shot to see major league action this year, but if he posts numbers this year like he did in 2005, the A's might give him a look in September.

Mac Suzuki, RHP

The A's very quietly signed Suzuki this off-season after he spent his winter pitching for A's bench coach Bob Geren on the Escogido team in the Dominican League. Geren must have seen something he liked in the former big leaguer because his numbers weren't that impressive. In fact, Suzuki is coming off of a very poor season in the Japanese professional league. Suzuki, at one time, was a heralded prospect in the Seattle chain. He made his debut with the Mariners at age 21 and pitched parts of three seasons in Seattle. He then pitched two years with the Kansas City Royals before spending single seasons in Milwaukee and Colorado before returning to Kansas City for parts of two major league campaigns. Suzuki has been out of the big leagues since 2002 and was pitching in Japan. It isn't clear what he has left to offer at age 31, but it isn't much of a risk for the A's to take a look at the once promising righty.

The Starters

We'll go into greater detail on these players in our look at spring training battles in the starting rotation, but there is an outside chance that one of the following starters could earn a spot in the A's bullpen with a strong spring. The A's will be carrying Dan Meyer, Shane Komine, Chad Gaudin , John Rheinecker and Adam Johnson into camp. All five are expected to be starters for Sacramento next season and it is likely the A's will keep them in the rotation rather than put them in the bullpen. However, as needs arise, if these guys are pitching well in Sacramento, they could get a look out of the bullpen.

Meyer and Rheinecker will be trying to prove that they are healthy and effective again, while Komine, Gaudin and Johnson will be making their first appearances in A's spring training camp. Komine and Gaudin, in particular, could open some eyes as right-handed bullpen candidates, as both pitchers have great stuff. Meyer, when healthy, has excellent stuff, as well, but his future is likely in the starting rotation, so it would be surprising if the A's moved him into the bullpen before seeing what he can do as a healthy starter in AAA.


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