Oakland A's Spring Training Battles: RPs

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 2007

Justin Duchscherer missed much of the season with a hip injury.
The A's bullpen was supposed to be a strength in 2007, but injuries hurt the bullpen's efforts all season. A's relievers posted a 4.27 ERA in 2007 and saved only 36 games. In 2006, the bullpen had a 3.60 ERA and 54 saves. Nearly all of the A's best relievers spent time on the disabled list: closer Huston Street and set-up men Justin Duchscherer and Kiko Calero each missed significant time. Only veteran Alan Embree stayed healthy the entire season out of the group that was expected to lead the A's relief corps. The A's were forced to use 20 different pitchers in relief last season, the majority of which were minor league recalls and waiver wire claims.

The news wasn't all bad, however. Hard-throwers Andrew Brown and Santiago Casilla both emerged as potential set-up men for the A's, each showing promise in their first extended looks in the big leagues. In addition, Street pitched well when he was healthy, a sign that he could be in for a big year in 2008.

Good-Bye And Hello

Ruddy Lugo was lost on waivers to the Mets.
Most of the A's core group of relievers are back for 2008, although Duchscherer will be pitching out of the starting rotation rather than the bullpen. The A's said good-bye to a number of the minor leaguers that they recalled during the season to pitch in the bullpen, including Colby Lewis, Ron Flores, Ruddy Lugo and Connor Robertson. In addition, left-hander Joe Kennedy, who pitched as a starter and a reliever for the A's in 2007 before being released in August, passed away tragically during the off-season.

The A's are welcoming a few new faces this season. Former All-Star closer Keith Foulke signed a one-year deal with Oakland late in the off-season. He spent the 2007 season out of baseball, but he is expected to act as a set-up man for the A's in 2008. In addition, the A's acquired hard-throwing righty Joey Devine from the Atlanta Braves for Mark Kotsay. Devine has had extensive closing experience in college and the minor leagues. The A's are also inviting a Rule 5 pick to compete for a spot in their bullpen for the second consecutive year. In 2007, it was Jay Marshall, who spent the entire year with the A's and is back in big league camp this season as a non-roster invitee. This year, Fernando Hernandez will try to win a spot in the A's bullpen. Oakland has also inked minor league free agents who will compete for bullpen spots: Troy Cate, Chris Gissell and Ryan Wing.

Starting Pitchers Invited To Camp

Jerry Blevins*
Andrew Brown*
Kiko Calero*
Santiago Casilla*
Troy Cate
Joey Devine*
Alan Embree*
Keith Foulke*
Chris Gissell
Jeff Gray*
Fernando Hernandez*
Jay Marshall
Huston Street*
Ryan Wing
Brad Ziegler

*Denotes member of the 40-man roster

Number Of SPs Likely On Roster – 6 or 7 Note that pitchers such as Kirk Saarloos, Dan Meyer, Dallas Braden, Lenny DiNardo and Dana Eveland would be candidates for the bullpen if they don't win the fifth starter spot. We profiled all five pitchers in the starting pitching battle article.

Locks To Make The Team

Kiko Calero:
Kiko Calero has a torn rotator cuff.
Since being acquired from the St. Louis Cardinals before the 2005 season, Calero has been an important and valuable part of the A's bullpen. In 2005, Calero posted a 3.23 ERA in 55.2 innings of work. He was used even more frequently in 2006, appearing in 70 games, often to retire a team's most difficult right-handed hitter. In 58 innings in 2006, Calero had a 3.41 ERA and 67 strike outs. He had 23 holds and two saves and he allowed only 50 hits. The wheels sort of fell off for Calero in 2007, however. He struggled from the outset of the season and wound-up posting a career-worst 5.75 ERA in 40.2 innings.

Injuries have been a constant for Calero throughout his career, and they were even worse for the right-hander in 2007. Shoulder woes affected his location all season. Normally unhittable versus right-handed hitters, Calero allowed right-handers to hit him at a .315 clip. The A's shut him down in late August in an attempt to get him healthy for this season. As it turns out, Calero was pitching with a partially torn rotator cuff. The A's non-tendered him during the off-season and then brought him back at a salary lower than what he would have earned in arbitration. Calero is attempting to rehab the injury without surgery, but he will start Spring Training behind the rest of his teammates and may start the year on the DL. He will be a big injury risk throughout the season, but the A's will try to get as many healthy innings out of Calero as possible this season.

Alan Embree:
Alan Embree saved 17 games in 2007.
Embree joined the A's before last season as a free agent on a two-year deal with an option for a third season. The left-hander was the A's most durable reliever last season, despite being the elder statesman in the bullpen. Embree was expected to be a set-up man for the A's, but he wound-up acting as the team's closer for a big chunk of the season while Huston Street was out with an elbow injury. The hard-throwing lefty posted a 3.97 ERA and saved 17 games for the A's in 2007.

With Street now healthy and former All-Star closer Keith Foulke on-board, Embree is expected to go back to being a full-time set-up man in 2008. He was very tough on left-handed hitters in 2007, holding them to a .205 BA and a 581 OPS. The hard-throwing Embree will make a nice compliment to the change-up artist Foulke and the slider-artist Calero in the 8th inning for the A's in 2008 – that is, if they keep him all season. Given Embree's age (38), value as a left-handed reliever and his contract status (an option year for 2009 is all that remains on Embree's contract), he is a prime target to be traded at the deadline to a contender if the A's are out of the race.

Keith Foulke:
Keith Foulke was last with Oakland in 2003.
Foulke was a surprise late addition to the A's bullpen this off-season. The former All-Star with Oakland in 2003 retired just before the 2007 season. Foulke's career had taken a number of turns since he left the A's for the Boston Red Sox before the 2004 season. During the 2004 season, Foulke was one of the most valuable members of the Red Sox's pitching staff and he helped lead the team to a World Series title. Things fell apart for Foulke after that season, however. Two consecutive years of 80+ innings pitched took its toll on Foulke's body. He struggled with knee and elbow injuries and had two awful years with the Red Sox in 2005 and 2006, posting ERAs above 4.00 for the first time since 1998. Foulke also had an acrimonious relationship with the Boston media and its fanbase during those years. In 2007, he left Boston and signed a one-year deal with the Cleveland Indians, but retired just before the start of Spring Training.

In January, Foulke announced that he was making a comeback, having undergone elbow surgery during his year away from baseball. The rebuilding A's didn't seem like an obvious choice for the veteran Foulke, but he came to terms with his old club on a one-year, incentive-laden contract just weeks before the start of camp. Foulke isn't expected to return to his old job, however. Instead, he is slotted to be a set-up man for Huston Street. According to the A's coaching staff, Foulke has been throwing with his same pinpoint location and he has been changing speeds like the Foulke of old. He was never a hard thrower, so the A's don't seem concerned that his fastball has been clocked in the mid-80s. Like Calero, Foulke figures to be a health risk during the season given his history. However, if he is healthy, Foulke could be one of the best set-up men in the big leagues. He gives the A's a nice back-up option for the closer position should Street suffer an injury.

Huston Street:
Huston Street was effective when healthy.
Superficially, Street had a disappointing 2007 season. He was injured for a significant portion of the season and he blew five saves in 21 chances. However, his peripherals would tell a different story. Street's K/9 ratio jumped from 8.40 during his first two seasons to 11.34 in 2007. In addition, his K/BB ratio improved, and his batting average against and OPS against went down. In other words, when he was healthy, Street was a much improved pitcher in 2007. Unfortunately, he appeared in 21 less games in 2007 as opposed to 2006 thanks to a nerve problem in his elbow that shelved him for more than a month. It was the third straight year that Street had been bothered with an injury, although this was the first year that he missed a significant amount of time.

Street's small frame and his high-effort throwing motion have led some scouts to speculate that Street will be vulnerable to injuries throughout his career, something that the A's will have to monitor. Oakland acquired two potential closers this off-season in Foulke and Joey Devine and drafted two collegiate closers with high round picks last year, which has led to speculation that the A's might move Street for prospects. For now, however, Street is still with the A's and, based on his numbers last season, could be on the verge of a breakout year. The A's have assembled a deeper bullpen this season than they have had in past years, which could help Street stay healthy by allowing the A's to limit his back-to-back appearances and avoid giving him too many multi-inning outings.

Favorites For The Final Spots
Andrew Brown:
Andrew Brown was acquired from San Diego.
Brown was acquired by Oakland in late June last season from the San Diego Padres for Milton Bradley. After a short stint with Triple-A Sacramento, the tall right-hander was promoted to the major leagues and spent the rest of the season with the A's, logging 41.2 innings in his first extended stay in the major leagues. The hard-throwing reliever posted a mediocre 4.54 ERA, but showed promise by striking out more than a batter an inning (43 in 41.2 innings) and allowing only one homerun.

Brown's stuff has always enticed major league teams. He has been involved in a number of high profile trades during his career, including two involving Bradley, one involving Gary Sheffield and another involving Kevin Kouzmanoff. Unfortunately for Brown, injuries and control problems had prevented him from making an impact in the big leagues before last season. He still had some control issues last season, walking more than three and a half batters per nine innings, but his control was improved over previous seasons. Brown has the velocity and the secondary stuff to be a late-inning reliever in the big leagues, but he will need to improve his control to become a regular in the eighth or ninth innings. The A's like Brown's potential and he is out of options, so it will likely take a horrific spring from Brown for him not to make the Opening Day roster.

Santiago Casilla:
Santiago Casilla had his best showing in the big leagues in 2007.
Casilla was somewhat of an afterthought going into Spring Training last season. In 2004, Casilla was one of the hottest prospects in the A's system when he zoomed up from Low-A to the major leagues in one season. At the time, however, Casilla was pitching under the name of Jairo Garcia and he was thought to be three years younger than he was in actuality. Casilla revealed the deception before the 2005 Spring Training, and although he made three appearances in the major leagues that season, his minor-league performance was generally disappointing. In 2006, Casilla had two appearances with the A's, but was limited to only 33 innings for Triple-A Sacramento thanks to injuries. Going into the 2007 season, Casilla's health was a question-mark and he was beginning to run out of time as a prospect at 27 years old.

Then Casilla finally got the break he was looking for. He began the year in Sacramento, but was recalled in early June when injuries devastated the A's bullpen. He quickly ran off 10 straight scoreless innings, his first string of success in the major leagues in his career. Casilla finished June with an 0.57 ERA and a regular role as a set-up man in the A's bullpen. He struggled during the final two months of the season, and finished the year with a 4.44 ERA in 50.2 innings. Like Brown, Casilla is a hard thrower with an above-average secondary pitch (in Casilla's case, an excellent slider). He struck out more than a batter an inning last season in the big leagues, but he also walked 23, a number that he will need to improve to find better success in the major leagues. Casilla, like Brown, is out of options and almost assuredly will start the year with the A's. He has been delayed in the Dominican Republic with visa issues, but he was delayed with similar issues each of the last two years and he was still ready to start the season.

Joey Devine:
Joey Devine was a collegiate closer for NC State.
Devine was acquired by the A's from Atlanta for centerfielder Mark Kotsay in late January. The former 2005 first-round pick has had an interesting career path. The NC State closer became the first major leaguer to allow grand slams in each of his first two outings when he debuted with Atlanta in 2005. He was included on the Braves post-season roster that year and had the misfortune of allowing Chris Burke's series-ending homerun in the 17th inning of Game Four of the NLDS. Devine then struggled with injuries in 2006 and never quite got on-track. The 2007 season was a much better one for Devine, who posted a 1.89 ERA in Double-A and Triple-A and then allowed only one run in 8.1 innings for the Braves in limited major league appearances.

Control problems have plagued Devine throughout his pro career. He has classic closer stuff, but he has averaged more than a walk an inning during his 19.2 major league innings and nearly a walk every two innings during his minor league career. Devine will need to improve his command significantly to find consistent success in the major leagues. He has one more option, so the A's could start him in Triple-A if he struggles to throw strikes during camp. However, if Devine looks strong in camp, the A's will be hard-pressed to keep him off of the roster, as he has the stuff to be an above-average reliever in the bigs.

Battling For The Final Spot

Jerry Blevins:
Jerry Blevins was light's-out for Sacramento in 2007.
Blevins' 2007 campaign was the definition of a breakthrough year. The lanky left-hander began the season as a forgotten prospect in the lower levels of the Chicago Cubs' organization. He finished the year having been traded for a former All-Star (Jason Kendall), and with major league service time and a spot in the bullpen for Team USA. All this after posting an ugly 6.13 ERA in 39.2 innings in three levels of A-ball in 2006. For 2007, Blevins was nearly untouchable in the minor leagues. He threw 77.1 innings at three levels (High-A, Double-A and Triple-A) and posted a 1.63 ERA with 102 strike-outs and only 18 walks. He saved 10 games and held opposing batters to a .200 average. Blevins then threw 11 shut-out innings in the post-season for Triple-A Sacramento, saving Game Three of the championship round for the River Cats, securing their third PCL title. He had a brief call-up with Oakland at the end of the season, where he was hit around a little bit, allowing five earned runs in 4.2 innings, but he recovered to pitch well for Team USA this fall during the World Cup tournament.

Blevins is likely to spend a decent portion of the 2008 season with the A's, but he may have to start the year in Triple-A, as the A's have a large number of lefties in camp with more experience and fewer minor league options. He could be a lefty set-up man for the A's for years to come. Blevins uses his 6'6'' frame to generate a downward plane to his pitches. He has good velocity for a lefty, sitting in the low-90s and hitting 95 on occasion, and a nice assortment of secondary pitches. His control is plus, plus and he is effective against both lefties and righties. Although Blevins is probably ready for the big leagues, it wouldn't be the worst thing for his development if he started the year back with Sacramento, where he could focus on tightening up his curveball and gain more Triple-A experience (he has only 13.2 innings at that level, including the playoffs). He will be 24 until early September.

Fernando Hernandez: For the second consecutive year, the A's selected a reliever out of the Chicago White Sox's chain in the Rule 5 draft. Last year, it was lefty Jay Marshall, who was in the Oakland bullpen for the entire season. This year, it is the right-hander Hernandez who will be looking to stick with the A's for the 2008 campaign. Hernandez spent the entire 2007 season at the Double-A level, where he had a 3.06 ERA in 85.1 innings. He struck out 84 and walked 23 and allowed only four homeruns on the season. Hernandez was very impressive during the Arizona Fall League, where he suited up with A's prospects for the Phoenix Desert Dogs. In 12.2 innings, he didn't allow an earned run and he gave-up only five hits while walking four and striking out 11.

Hernandez isn't an overpowering pitcher, but that hasn't stopped him from putting together an impressive minor league resume. In 293.1 innings, Hernandez has a nearly 3:1 K:BB ratio and he has averaged more than a strike-out per inning. His career ERA is 3.25 and he has saved 34 games, including nine last season. A low-round pick in 2002, Hernandez has had to overcome the prejudice against shorter right-handed pitchers and pitchers without great fastballs in his career. He has plus command and an above-average curveball that he uses as an out-pitch. Hernandez will have a lot of competition for a spot in the A's bullpen (Oakland will need to carry him on the major-league roster all season or offer him back to Chicago), but he is in a good position given that the A's are in a rebuilding mode. Oakland carried Marshall all season even though they started the year hoping to contend, so it appears more likely than not that the A's would be willing to carry a Rule 5 pick in a rebuilding situation. Of course, Hernandez, like Marshall did last year, will have to earn it with a good performance in major league games this spring.

Jay Marshall:
Jay Marshall is a non-roster invitee this season.
The aforementioned Marshall has had a whirlwind 12 months. It began on a high note when the side-arming lefty earned a spot in the A's bullpen with a strong spring. The Rule 5 pick hung on with the A's for the entire 2007 season, although he was up-and-down with his performance. Marshall appeared in 51 games with the A's during the season, and he posted a 6.43 ERA in 42 innings. He struck out only 18 batters the entire season, while walking 22, and he allowed opposing batters to hit .298 off of him. Marshall did do a good job keeping the ball on the ground. He gave-up only three homeruns and recorded more than two-and-a-half times as many groundball outs as flyball outs. He also performed better against lefties (704 OPS against) than righties (869 OPS against).

Marshall was slated to represent the A's in the Arizona Fall League this past off-season, but only one week into league play, Marshall was outrighted off of the A's 40-man roster and claimed on waivers by the Boston Red Sox. He remained on the Red Sox's 40-man roster until early December, when he was outrighted by Boston. The A's claimed him at that point, but removed him from the 40-man once again only a few days later. This time, Marshall cleared waivers and rejoined the A's as a non-roster player. He was invited to big league camp with a legitimate shot to earn his way back on the A's 40-man roster.

Despite the ugly numbers, Marshall showed promise last season and could be a valuable member of the A's bullpen down-the-road. He showed good off-speed stuff during Spring Training, but appeared leery of using anything but his fastball in regular season big league games. Marshall was also over-exposed against right-handed batters, and he predictably struggled against them, which likely affected his confidence. In an ideal world, Marshall would act strictly as a lefty specialist who can be used in crucial situations to get a groundball out. If Marshall shows more confidence in his entire repertoire this spring, he may find himself back in the A's bullpen at the start of the year. Otherwise, he'll see significant time either at Double-A or Triple-A (two levels he never reached before making his big league debut), where he can work on his command and on mixing in his secondary pitches.

Looking To Make An Impression

Troy Cate:
Troy Cate made his big league debut in 2007.
Cate joined the A's as a minor league free agent this off-season after making 14 appearances for the St. Louis Cardinals in 2007. It was Cate's first taste of the major leagues after six seasons split between the St. Louis and Seattle organizations. The lefty had a 3.38 ERA in 16 big league innings, allowing 18 hits and nine walks, while striking out 12. He spent the rest of the season with Triple-A Memphis, where he had a 6.81 ERA in 71.1 innings.

Cate is a left-hander who has spent time both starting and relieving during his minor league career. He generally throws his fastball in the 85-90 MPH range and he has an above-average curveball and a decent slider. Cate has averaged more than a strikeout per inning during his career and has allowed an average of 2.71 walks per nine innings. He is one of a slew of lefties in A's camp, so he'll need to have a big spring to standout. However, the A's have promoted a number of their minor league free agent reliever signings over the past few years during the season, so he can position himself for that possibility with a good spring.

Chris Gissell:
Chris Gissell spent the last two seasons in Japan.
Gissell is returning to the US after spending two seasons in Japan playing for the Seibu Lions. The right-hander was successful for Seibu in 2006, posting a 3.96 ERA in 18 appearances (16 starts). He struggled in 2007 for the Lions, however, posting a 5.21 ERA in 74 innings. Before heading to Japan, Gissell spent 10 seasons in the minor leagues. He was with the Chicago Cubs for seven of those seasons, Colorado for two and St. Louis for one. Gissell made five appearances, including one start, for the Rockies in 2004, allowing 14 runs in 8.2 innings.

Because Gissell has been in Japan for the past two seasons, it has been awhile since any of the A's coaching staff has seen him pitch live in all likelihood. Gissell has a lot of mileage on his arm, having thrown nearly 1500 innings in his career. He is a big right-hander at 6'5'', 220 pounds and was known as a hard-thrower during his minor league career. Gissell turned 30 this January. He has a starter's repertoire – fastball, slider, curveball and change-up – but his best hope for seeing time with the A's this season is in the bullpen.

Jeff Gray:
Jeff Gray was added to the 40-man roster this off-season.
After moving relatively slowly through the A's chain during his first three years with the organization, Gray took a big leap forward in 2007. The right-hander made the conversion from starter to reliever in 2006 and also found a few extra miles per hour on his fastball thanks to a few mechanical tweaks and better conditioning. That led to a strong finish to his 2006 season with High-A Stockton as a reliever. Gray began the 2007 season in Double-A, but was quickly promoted to Triple-A after rattling off 12 shut-out innings for Midland. He appeared in 46 games for the River Cats, saving 12 and posting a 4.09 ERA. Gray was sent to the Arizona Fall League and despite posting a 5.68 ERA, he showed enough that the A's added him to the 40-man roster this off-season.

Gray has an excellent fastball that he can throw in the mid-90s with movement. He also has a change-up, curveball and slider, although he is working to improve his command of the slider. Command, in general, is Gray's biggest weakness, as he walked 24 in 67.1 innings in 2007. He has been working with A's bullpen coach Ron Romanick on a few mechanical tweaks that he hopes will help address his command issues. Gray is in a similar position at the start of camp that Mike Mitchell was in last year, as a hard-throwing reliever with good stuff and a history of command problems. Mitchell threw well enough in big league camp last season that he almost earned a spot on the A's Opening Day roster (an injury to his shoulder was the biggest reason he was left-off the roster). Gray has the stuff to make a similar impression if he can throw strikes. More likely than not, however, he will start the year with Triple-A Sacramento, where he could be an option for the A's during the season if one of their right-handed relievers goes down with an injury.

Ryan Wing: Wing signed as a minor league free agent with the A's after six seasons mostly spent in the Chicago White Sox organization. The left-hander was once one of the White Sox's best southpaw pitching prospects, but injuries have derailed his career. From 2004-2006, Wing threw less than 100 innings. Last season, he was finally healthy and he appeared in 35 games with Double-A Birmingham. He made 17 starts and 18 relief appearances and posted a 3.24 ERA with 93 strike-outs in 114 innings.

Wing's shoulder problems took him a long time to get over, but he was never a hard-thrower, so it didn't dramatically affect his stuff. He relies on changing speeds and locating his pitches well. His best pitches are his secondary offerings – a change-up and a curveball. His fastball sits in the mid- to high-80s with some movement. Because of the shoulder woes, Wing hasn't had a lot of time in the minor leagues for a guy with seven years in professional baseball. It also isn't clear whether the A's see Wing as a starter or a reliever. If they see him as a starter, he will likely begin the season in Double-A. If they see him in the bullpen, he will compete for a spot in Triple-A this spring.

Brad Ziegler:
Brad Ziegler became a side-armer in 2007.
Ziegler re-signed with the A's as a minor league free agent after a strong 2007 season – his first as a side-arm reliever. The right-hander had been a starter in the A's organization from 2004-2006, but the team suggested that he try to move into the bullpen and alter his throwing motion in an effort to find a spot in the major leagues. He began the year in Double-A, but was promoted to Triple-A for good after posting a 1.14 ERA in 23.2 innings for the Rockhounds. He threw in 54.2 innings for Sacramento, posting a 2.96 ERA. On the season, he finished with a 2.41 ERA and 62 strike-outs in 78.1 innings. He also pitched very well in the post-season for Sacramento.

Ziegler will be making his first appearance in major league camp, although he is already very familiar to A's coaches Tony DeFrancesco and Ron Romanick, both of whom worked with Ziegler in the minor leagues. Thanks to his side-arm motion, Ziegler has developed into a right-handed specialist. He held right-handers to a batting average under .200 last season, while lefties hit him at a better than .300 clip. Ziegler induces a lot of groundballs and has shown good durability. He projects as a Chad Bradford-type reliever in the big leagues. The A's certainly had a lot of success with Bradford in their bullpen in the past, and could turn to Ziegler during the season if they feel that they have room to carry a right-handed specialist.

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