Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: RP

The weather outside might still be frightful, but spring is just around the corner and that means only one thing: baseball! Every year, we preview the spring training roster battles that will take place during major league camp. While these battles may change based on a late move, most of these scenarios will still hold true. We conclude our series with a look at the relief pitching battle.

A Look Back At 2006

If the strength of the 2006 Oakland A's was their pitching staff, then the bullpen was the heart of the team's strength. The A's bullpen withstood a myriad of injuries to post a stellar 3.25 ERA over 462.2 innings. For a second consecutive year, Huston Street anchored the A's bullpen as the team's closer. He led the team with 70.2 innings of relief and 37 saves. Street fought through two groin injuries and early season struggles with his slider to post a 3.31 ERA. His season ended badly, as he gave up the game-winning grandslam to Magglio Ordonez in the bottom of the ninth in Game Four of the ALCS, but Street had a solid sophomore season after his Rookie of the Year campaign in 2005.

Justin Duchscherer, Kiko Calero and Joe Kennedy were meant to be Street's primary set-up men at the start of the season. Calero was the only one of the three to pitch the entire season without missing time due to injuries. Both Duchscherer and Kennedy were effective when healthy, but their absences during the middle months of the season put a strain on the rest of the bullpen.

Jay Witasick, another veteran who was supposed to log important innings at the start of the season, managed only 22.2 innings and he struggled through most of them, posting a 6.75 ERA. Kirk Saarloos split his time between the bullpen and the rotation in 2006, making 19 relief appearances. He had a 4.35 relief ERA and he saved two games in three opportunities.

Helping to fill their voids were Chad Gaudin and Brad Halsey. Both began the year as starting pitchers who were expected to spend the majority of the season in Triple-A. Instead, both were pushed into relief duty at the big league level. Halsey started seven games and threw 56.1 innings of relief, good for fourth on the team. His bullpen ERA was 3.99.

Gaudin appeared in 55 games, all in relief, posting 64 innings with an ERA of 3.09. He struggled with his control, walking more than he struck out, but he managed to dance his way out of trouble, thanks in large part to allowing only 51 hits.

Lefty Ron Flores also saw a lot of major league relief action in place of the injured Kennedy. He appeared in 25 games, throwing 29.2 innings with a 3.34 ERA.

The A's turned to a number of Triple-A and waiver wire fill-ins to cover for the injured bullpen regulars. Scott Sauerbeck, Randy Keisler, Steve Karsay, Matt Roney, Santiago Casilla and Jason Windsor all logged relief time. Even Joe Blanton had one three-inning relief appearance.

The A's bullpen continued to be a strength in the playoffs. With the exception of the four runs Street allowed in the final at-bat of the ALCS, the A's bullpen allowed only two runs in 21.2 innings of work.

Good-Bye And Hello

For the most part, the A's 2006 bullpen will return intact in 2007. Oakland traded away swingman Kirk Saarloos and are likely to promote either Joe Kennedy or Brad Halsey to the starting rotation. They also said good-bye to Sauerbeck, Keisler, Karsay and Roney, all of whom joined the team as minor league signings or waiver wire acquisitions in 2006.

The A's added veteran Alan Embree this off-season, signing him to a two-year deal with an option for a third year. Embree, who turned 37 in January, had a solid 2006 season with the San Diego Padres. He appeared in 73 games for the Padres and he posted a 3.27 ERA. He should be an upgrade as a lefty in the A's bullpen over both Kennedy and Halsey. Embree is more effective against left-handers, while both Kennedy and Halsey had better numbers against right-handed hitters last season. Embree's last year in the American League was in 2005, when he struggled during stints with the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. Embree won a World Series ring with Boston in 2004.

In addition to Embree, the A's added left-hander Jay Marshall to bolster the left-side of the bullpen via the Rule 5 draft. The former White Sox prospect held left-handed hitters to a batting average against under .100 in High-A last season. The A's also added minor league relief prospect David Shafer, who was acquired in the trade for Saarloos. The right-hander is probably at least a half-season away from the major leagues, but he has promise and could be a mid-season factor for the A's if injuries strike.

In addition, the A's signed Scott Dunn to a major league contract. The former Tampa Bay Devil Rays reliever spent seven games in the major leagues in 2006 and he allowed 10 runs in 7.2 innings. He also appeared in three games for the Anaheim Angels in 2004.

The A's also inked former Texas Rangers reliever Erasmo Ramirez to a minor league contract this off-season. Ramirez spent all last season in the minor leagues. He has a 4.01 ERA in 84 career major league games.

Relief Pitchers Invited to Camp

Kiko Calero
Santiago Casilla
Scott Dunn
Alan Embree
Ron Flores
Chad Gaudin
Brad Halsey
Joe Kennedy
Shane Komine
Jay Marshall
Marcus McBeth
Mike Mitchell
Erasmo Ramirez
Connor Robertson
David Shafer
Huston Street
Jason Windsor
Jay Witasick

Number Of RPs Likely On Roster – 6, although the A's may carry 7 if they are comfortable with a smaller bench.

Note: We discussed Kennedy, Halsey, Windsor and Komine at length in the starting rotation preview, so we will only touch on these pitchers briefly to describe their chances as a reliever in this article.

Locks To Make The Team

Huston Street: Street, who was drafted in 2004, will be entering his third season as the team's closer. Although his 2006 season wasn't as strong as his 2005 campaign, Street still managed to save 37 games. He blew 11 saves and he lost four games and he struggled against left-handed hitters for much of the season, allowing a 761 OPS against left-handers, while limiting right-hander to a 512 OPS.

Much of Street's struggles were attributed to a groin injury which he sustained early in the season and fought through the rest of the season. He only spent one stint on the DL, but he was out of action for 10 days early in the year. Despite missing that much time, Street still led the team in relief innings pitched, an indication of how much he was used when he was available. Street also struggled with his slider and never felt comfortable with his change-up, both pitches which would have been weapons against left-handed hitters.

He missed much of last spring training while participating in the World Baseball Classic, time that he could have spent refining his slider and getting comfortable with his change-up. He will have a full spring this year to work on both pitches and he should have a better season in 2006. If he does struggle, there is a chance the A's could move Justin Duchscherer into the closer's role, although the A's will give Street a lot of leeway.

Justin Duchscherer: Although Street is the A's closer, Duchscherer may very well be the A's "relief ace." Back and elbow injuries limited Duchscherer to only 53 games, but he was outstanding during those appearances. Blessed with some of the best control in the league, Duchscherer gave up only nine walks in 55.2 innings while striking out 51. He also saved nine games while Street was injured.

Duchscherer isn't a fireballer, but he is one of the more difficult pitchers to hit because he has a nasty curveball and a cut-fastball that eats hitters up. Unfortunately for the A's, he also has a chronically sore back that limits him at various points during the season. Although the A's will try to be careful with Duchscherer, there is only so much they can do to maintain his health. He will likely miss at least one stretch with back problems. How many games Duchscherer misses will help determine how effective the A's bullpen will be in 2007.

Kiko Calero: In his second year with the A's, Calero had another solid season for Oakland. Appearing in a career-high 70 games, Calero had a 3.41 ERA and a 1.28 WHIP. He struck out 67 in 58 innings and was especially tough on right-handed hitters, limiting them to a 564 OPS. Left-handers had a 784 OPS against Calero.

Although Calero didn't miss any time with injuries, the A's were careful how they used him all season. Calero has had knee and elbow problems in the past, so the A's limited their use of Calero in back-to-back games and back-to-back innings. Calero is significantly more effective against right-handed hitters, and the A's will often use him to get out one or two tough right-handed hitters at the end of a game. He should have a similar work load in 2007.

Alan Embree: Embree was somewhat of a surprising free agent signing this off-season. The 12-year major league veteran looked to be at the end of his career when he posted an ugly 7.62 ERA for the Yankees and Red Sox in 2005. However, he recovered with a solid season in 2006 with San Diego. He struck out 53 in 52.1 innings and held left-handed batters to a 625 OPS.

Embree has been incredibly durable during his career. Since 1999, he has appeared in at least 60 games in each of those eight seasons. He is a hard-thrower and he has a lot experience in playoff situations. Although Embree is likely to see most of his time as a left-handed relief specialist, he and GM Billy Beane both expressed their desire to see Embree pitch full innings at times next season, even if some of the hitters that inning are right-handed.

Chad Gaudin: Gaudin was one of the biggest surprises of the 2006 season. Originally ticketed to be in the Sacramento River Cats' rotation, Gaudin was pressed into major league relief duty early in the season due to injuries in the A's bullpen and starting rotation. He spent the majority of the season in the A's bullpen, logging 64 innings as a set-up man. Gaudin posted an impressive 3.09 ERA, but he often made things interesting with his erratic control. He walked 42 batters and struck out 36, numbers that normally would lead to a disastrous season. However, Gaudin was able to limit his self-inflicted damage by limiting opposing batters to a .222 batting average against.

Gaudin has excellent stuff and his minor league track record indicates that he should have better control than he displayed last season. He earned a lot of praise from the A's coaching staff for his work with runners on-base. With no runners on-base, Gaudin allowed hitters to get on-base at a .390 clip. With runners on-base, Gaudin allowed runners to get on-base at only a .289 clip. Gaudin may not be as lucky with runners on-base in 2007, so he will likely have to improve his control in order to repeat his 2006 performance. He was a starting pitcher throughout his career until last season, but the A's don't plan to move Gaudin out of the bullpen for now.

Joe Kennedy: Kennedy will more than likely be in the A's starting rotation after spending all of the 2006 season in the A's bullpen. However, if he struggles as a starter, he could go back into the bullpen, where he posted a team-best 2.41 ERA last season.

Favorites For The Final Spot

Jay Witasick: Witasick enters the 2007 season in the final year of a two-year contract that he signed before the 2006 season. Although he is guaranteed one million dollars, Witasick could lose his spot in the bullpen if he repeats his 2006 spring training performance. He was awful last spring and that extended into a terrible 2006 season that was marred by injuries and ineffectiveness. He appeared in only 22.2 innings and many of those innings came at the end of blow-outs. Witasick had a 6.75 ERA and a 2.03 WHIP. He was crushed by right-handed hitters, who hit .350 against him, although he did find some success against left-handers, limiting them to four hits in 29 at-bats (.138 BAA).

Witasick is a better pitcher than he showed in 2006 and he will be pitching for a new contract, so he could be poised for a much better season. The 10-year veteran is a hard-thrower and he could make the A's bullpen one of the deepest in the league if he can regain his 2005 form, when he had a 2.84 ERA. Despite his guaranteed contract, Witasick shouldn't feel too comfortable. Billy Beane has cut ineffective veterans scheduled to make as much as Witasick in the past, so the decision to keep Witasick will come down more to his performance than his salary. Even if Witasick does perform well in spring training, the A's could choose to trade him and go with one of their many young relief prospects.

Brad Halsey: With Saarloos no longer on the team, the A's will be looking for someone else to handle the long-relief role in 2006. Halsey enters camp as the favorite for that role after pitching in long-relief for some of last season. Halsey is a crafty lefty with a rubber arm who appeared in 45 games as a reliever in 2006. His ERA was more than a run better in the bullpen than it was in the starting rotation. He will compete for a starting rotation spot, but his chances of making the A's roster are better in the bullpen than they are in the starting rotation.

Jay Marshall: The A's selected the submarine lefty from the Chicago White Sox chain in the Rule 5 draft. Marshall will have to remain on the A's 25-man roster all season, or he will be offered back to the White Sox for $25,000.

Marshall has never pitched above High-A and given that he will be competing against major league veterans for the last spot in the bullpen, he will have to perform really well this spring to stick. That being said, the A's will likely give Marshall a very long look, as they clearly like his arm and are intrigued about his ability to be an outstanding left-handed specialist at the major league level. Marshall's numbers against left-handers last season are simply amazing. They hit only .096 against him in more than 100 at-bats. He also walked only eight batters in 62 innings. That control should help him compete this spring.

Jason Windsor: Although Windsor has been a starting pitcher for most of his career, he may have a better shot of pitching in the major leagues this season as a relief pitcher. Like Halsey, Windsor is a candidate to fill the long-relief role for the A's in 2007. Windsor's repertoire could suit him well in the bullpen. Like Duchscherer, Windsor has racked up good strikeout totals throughout his career despite not having an over-powering fastball. Windsor uses good control and an excellent change-up to keep hitters from making contact. He struggled with his control during his major league debut last season, but if he has the control that he displayed as a minor leaguer, he could be the A's long reliever in 2007.

Battling For The Final Spot

Shane Komine: With a lengthy injury history, Komine has been pegged by many scouts as a potential reliever despite his minor league track record as a starting pitcher. Komine, like Windsor, has excellent control and good off-speed pitches. As a starter, Komine has struggled at times to maintain his velocity on his fastball, which he can throw in the low-to-mid 90s when he is at 100 percent. In relief, Komine may be able to maintain that velocity better. If he throws hard in camp and shows good control, Komine could make a strong challenge for the long-relief role in the A's bullpen.

Ron Flores: On almost any other team in the major leagues, Flores would be a lock to make the major league roster. Flores has appeared in 36 major league games over the past two seasons and he has a 2.82 ERA over 38.1 major league innings. He has struck out 26 and has walked only 10 during that time. In 2006, he recorded his first major league win and his first major league save.

At the Triple-A level, Flores has little left to prove, as he has been one of the River Cats' best relievers since 2004. With Embree in the fold and Halsey and Kennedy still in the organization, there may not be any room for Flores at the outset of the season. However, he has begun each of the last two seasons in Sacramento and has made an appearance in Oakland in each of the last two seasons. That pattern could continue again in 2007.

Santiago Casilla: As recently as 2004, Casilla (then known as Jairo Garcia) was thought to be the A's closer of the future. However, since that time, Casilla has aged three years and has struggled with injuries and, at times, ineffectiveness. He is now out of options and the A's will have to make a decision about the hard-throwing right-hander at the end of camp. If he performs up to his talent level, he could force the A's to make room for him.

At his best, Casilla is simply dominating, as he combines his mid-90s fastball with a sharp slider that sits in the low-80s. However, he often loses control of his pitches and gets flustered with runners on-base. Casilla missed most of last season with an injured shoulder and he didn't pitch well in a short appearance in the Dominican Winter Leagues, so it isn't clear whether he is fully recovered from last season's injuries. If he doesn't make the A's roster, he will likely be traded, as there is bound to be at least one team interested in taking a flier on a hard-thrower like Casilla.

Looking To Make An Impression

Scott Dunn: Dunn, like Matt Roney last season, was signed to a major league free agent deal a year after spending most of the season in the minor leagues. He is an eight-year minor league veteran who has had cups of coffee at the major league level in 2004 and 2006. He has a large repertoire of pitches, including a low-90s fastball, a curveball, a change-up and a knuckleball that he mixes in with his other pitches. Dunn began his career in the Cincinnati organization and has subsequently spent time in the White Sox, Angels and Devil Rays chains.

Despite being on the 40-man roster, Dunn isn't likely to make the team out of spring training. However, in each of the last two seasons, the A's have called upon members of the River Cats' pitching staff to pitch significant innings at the major league level. If he makes a good impression this spring, Dunn could be at the top of the list to be recalled when there are injuries at the major league level.

Erasmo Ramirez: The A's have had plenty of opportunities to see Ramirez from the opposite side of the fence over the past few seasons. Ramirez made 84 appearances for the Texas Rangers from 2003-2005. The side-arming left-hander has a career 4.01 ERA 107.2 major league innings. He is an extreme soft-tosser who uses his unusual arm angle to fool hitters.

Ramirez made only 16 appearances in 2005 for Texas due to injuries and he then spent all of the 2006 season in Triple-A. He appeared in 67.2 innings for Triple-A Oklahoma in 2006, posting a 3.59 ERA. He has always had impeccable control (85 walks in 458 career minor league innings), but he has done better against right-handers than he has against left-handers, making it difficult for him to stick as a situational left-hander at the major league level.

Ramirez will be facing an uphill battle to make the roster out of spring training, but he could see time at the major league level if injuries strike the A's roster. He could be this year's Randy Keisler if he pitches well this spring and at Triple-A.

Here For The Future

Marcus McBeth: The A's have a slew of talented right-handed relievers in camp this spring and McBeth leads the list. The South Carolina alum had a break-through season in 2006, saving 32 games at three levels and striking out 86 batters in 70.1 innings. He also impressed in a stint as the closer for the Phoenix Desert Dogs during the Arizona Fall League.

McBeth, who is only in his second season as a pitcher after starting his career as a centerfielder, boasts a mid-90s fastball and an outstanding change-up. He is still working on perfecting his slider and on picking up all of the nuances of being a pitcher instead of a position player. However, he has proven himself to be an incredibly fast learner and it wouldn't surprise anyone if McBeth dominated Triple-A during the first half of the season and forced his way on the roster by the All-Star Break.

Connor Robertson: Robertson has been a low-profile prospect for most of his career, but it has been because of his status as a late round draft pick and it hasn't been because of his performance. In three minor league seasons, Robertson has struck out an incredible 268 batters in 193 innings. Robertson throws a heavy low-90s fastball, a tight slider and a developing back-door change-up. He also experimented with a cut-fastball last season.

Robertson has been a set-up man throughout his minor league career and that is likely the role he would take-on at the major league level. At times, he has struggled with his command, but when he is throwing strikes, he has been one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in the A's entire system.

David Shafer: Shafer was acquired last month in exchange for Saarloos. The right-hander is coming off an outstanding season for Double-A Chattanooga, where he saved 26 games and posted a 2.36 ERA. Shafer was almost unhittable at the start of last season. He saved his first 22 games for Chattanooga before being slowed by bicep tendonitis. His performance was not as good after the injury, but he should be 100 percent at camp. Like Robertson, Shafer has a low-90s sinking fastball and a plus slider. He has shown he can handle the pressure of the late innings at the minor league level. Along with McBeth, Shafer will give the River Cats two seasoned closers in their bullpen next season.

Mike Mitchell: After two seasons plagued with injuries, Mitchell was finally healthy in 2006 and his performance reflected that good health. The right-hander pitched at three levels (High-A, Double-A and Triple-A). He had 18 saves for Stockton and made the California League All-Star team before being promoted to Double-A Midland at mid-season. He spent most of the rest of the season in Midland as a set-up man, save a brief appearance in Sacramento. Mitchell was then invited to the Arizona Fall League, where he really captured the attention of the scouts with a lively fastball and excellent command. He could have a future as a seventh or eighth inning reliever at the major league level.

Storyline To Watch

Depending on how many bench players the A's carry, Oakland will have either one or two open spots in the bullpen at the start of spring training. The A's have a slew of good candidates for those final two spots and it is a fairly open competition. Relievers don't have much time to show their stuff during the spring, so the relievers who get off to the best starts at the beginning of camp could have a leg up for the rest of the spring.

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