Oakland A's Spring Position Battles: RP

The 2012 Oakland A's bullpen was a young but successful unit. Many of those relievers will return in 2013. Can they repeat their success? Will there be newcomers in the bullpen? We take a look at the A's spring battle for the bullpen.

A Look Back At 2012

Going into spring training, the Oakland A's bullpen was a question-mark. Veterans Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes were the only two pitchers guaranteed spots on the Opening Day roster, and there was some speculation that the two could be trade bait. In the six months leading up to spring training, the A's had traded closer Andrew Bailey and veteran set-up men Brad Ziegler and Craig Breslow, leaving the A's with several holes to fill during spring training.

Grant Balfour led the team in appearances and saves.

As it would turn out, the bullpen turned out to be a strength, despite the fact that eight rookies would throw relief innings for the A's during the season. As a unit, the A's bullpen posted a 2.94 ERA, won 30 games, saved 47 games and posted a 1.17 WHIP. A's relievers struck-out 469 and walked 209 in 512 innings pitched. They allowed only 45 homeruns.

Ironically, one of the A's ‘sure things' in spring camp – Fuentes – turned out not to be much of a factor in 2012. The left-hander briefly served as the A's closer, but he struggled in many of his 26 outings and was released at the end of June with a 6.84 ERA and a 1.60 WHIP. He would catch-on with the St. Louis Cardinals but wouldn't be included on their post-season roster. Fuentes announced his retirement during the off-season.

Balfour, however, was a big factor for the A's. He began the year as Oakland's closer, but would lose the job after some early-season missteps. However, Balfour would finish the year as the A's closer. He made a team-high 75 appearances and saved a team-best 24 games. The right-hander posted a 2.53 ERA, an 0.92 WHIP and a 72:28 K:BB ratio in 74.2 innings. Balfour would close all three of the A's wins in the regular season's final series against the Texas Rangers and would save Game Three of the ALDS, a 1-0 Oakland win.

Rookie Ryan Cook earned his way onto the Opening Day roster with a nearly flawless spring and quickly became one of the A's most important relievers. He was a set-up man early and late in the season and a closer in the middle. All told, Cook finished his rookie season with a 2.09 ERA, an 0.94 WHIP and 80 strike-outs in 73.1 innings pitched. He saved 14 games and finished ninth in the league in strike-outs by relievers. He was the A's lone All-Star representative and he had a scoreless appearance at the game in Kansas City.

By the end of the season, Cook was one-half of a dynamic left-right set-up duo for the A's. The other half was fellow rookie Sean Doolittle, who began the year in minor league camp with several questions about his future. Doolittle, the A's second pick in 2007, had one been one of the organization's top position prospects but knee and wrist injuries ended his time as a first baseman and corner outfielder. Doolittle made the transition to the mound – where he had starred in college – at the end of the 2011 season and during the A's fall Instructional League. His fastball had promise, but no one knew what to expect from the Virginia alum.

All Doolittle did is move from High-A Stockton to the big leagues in two months time. In the minors, the southpaw was nearly unhittable, striking out 48 and walking only seven in 25 innings pitched. He allowed just eight hits and two earned runs. In the majors, Doolittle found similar success. Despite being limited mostly to one pitch, Doolittle posted a 3.04 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP in 47.1 innings. He struck-out 60, walked only 11 and allowed just three homeruns. Lefties hit .286 off Doolittle, but right-handers batted only .195 and struck-out 42 times in 113 at-bats.

Brian Fuentes struggled and was let-go midway through the season.

Another left-hander who came into spring training with questions was Jerry Blevins, who had spent the 2011 season riding the shuttle between the big leagues and Triple-A Sacramento. Blevins spent the entire 2012 season with Oakland and he had his best season in the big leagues. The southpaw made 63 appearances for the A's and he had a 2.48 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP. Blevins struck-out 54 in 65.1 innings and held opposing batters to a .201 average. He had one save on the season, but it was a memorable one, as Blevins came into a game against the Angels in the bottom of the ninth inning and preserved a one-run lead despite inheriting a first-and-third, no-out situation.

Jordan Norberto's season ended early because of shoulder tendinitis, but before he landed on the DL, the hard-throwing lefty shined. In 52 innings, Norberto had a 2.77 ERA and a 1.13 WHIP. Rookie right-hander Jim Miller split his season between Sacramento and Oakland, but he still managed to make 33 appearances for the A's, posting a 2.59 ERA with 44 strike-outs in 48.2 innings.

Jerry Blevins had one of the most memorable saves of the season.

Evan Scribner had one of the most memorable relief appearances for the A's in 2012. The rookie right-hander took over for a struggling A.J. Griffin in the third inning of Game 162 against the Texas Rangers with the A's trailing 5-1. Scribner tossed three scoreless innings, keeping the A's in the game long enough for them to rally for an eventual 12-5, AL West-clinching win. Scribner finished the year with a 2.55 ERA and 30 strike-outs in 35.1 innings in his rookie season.

Sidearmer Pat Neshek joined the A's in a trade with the Orioles in early August. Used mostly in situations against right-handers, Neshek had an 0.81 WHIP and a 1.37 ERA in 19.2 innings. He struck-out 16 and allowed only two hits in 53 at-bats to right-handers. Neshek also was one of the most inspiring stories of the 2012 baseball season, as he pitched in the ALDS just days after losing his newborn son.

Southpaw Pedro Figueroa made the major leagues in his first full season back from 2010 Tommy John surgery. Figueroa split his season between the minors and the big leagues, and in 21.1 innings, he had a 3.32 ERA. It was Figueroa's first season as a reliever after spending his minor league career as a starter.

Andrew Carignan made the A's Opening Day roster but was lost early in the season with an elbow injury that resulted in Tommy John surgery. Fautino De Los Santos, Travis Blackley, Tyson Ross, Jesse Chavez, Jeremy Accardo, Graham Godfrey and Rich Thompson would throw the remaining innings for the A's.

Goodbye And Hello

Most of the A's 2012 relievers were still under team control going into 2013, so there were relatively few players lost during the off-season. De Los Santos was traded to Milwaukee during the 2012 season for George Kottara. During the off-season, the A's placed Miller on waivers and lost him to the New York Yankees on a claim. Ross was traded to San Diego in a four-player deal and Thompson was let go via minor league free agency.

Anticipating a need for depth after several young A's relievers had heavy workloads in 2012, the Oakland front office did add several relief arms this off-season, however. Right-handers Chris Resop and Fernando Rodriguez – both major league veterans – were acquired via trades. Left-hander Andrew Werner was acquired in the Ross trade.

Oakland also brought in several relievers on minor league contracts. Mike Ekstrom, Brian Gordon, Kyler Newby, Hideki Okajima, Garrett Olson and Justin Thomas are all in A's camp competing for a spot in the A's bullpen.

Relievers In Camp

Grant Balfour*
Travis Blackley*
Jerry Blevins*
Andrew Carignan
Jesse Chavez*
Ryan Cook*
Sean Doolittle*
Mike Ekstrom
Pedro Figueroa*
Brian Gordon
Arnold Leon*
Pat Neshek*
Kyler Newby
Jordan Norberto*
Hideki Okajima
Garrett Olson
Chris Resop*
Fernando Rodriguez*
Evan Scribner*
Justin Thomas
Andrew Werner*

*Denotes member of the 40-man roster
Number of Relievers Likely on Opening Day Roster: 6-7

Locks To Make Roster

Unlike last spring, the A's enter camp this year with their bullpen mostly set. Balfour, Cook, Doolittle and Blevins are expected to carry the load for the A's once again this season. There will be fierce competition for the final two or three spots, although several known quantities will be in the fold for those spots, as well.

Ryan Cook is looking to build on his All-Star rookie season.

Balfour's camp got off to a rough start when he was diagnosed with a torn meniscus after the first day of pitcher's workouts. The right-hander got the knee cleaned up immediately and is expected to be back to full strength before the end of camp. If he does have any set-backs, Balfour could start the year on the DL, but he isn't expected to miss a significant amount of time.

Coming into the season, Balfour is expected to be the A's closer, although A's manager Bob Melvin showed last season that he wasn't afraid to change his closer if he wasn't throwing well. Balfour, in his last year of his contract with the A's, was electric for most of the season for the A's last year, but, like so many relievers, he did suffer from occasional bouts of wildness that caused him problems. Balfour will have a little bit of rope to work with considering his success at the end of the 2012 season as a closer, but if he struggles for an extended period or if he lands on the DL, Melvin won't hesitate to turn to Cook in the ninth inning.

In many ways, Cook had a similar season to Balfour in that he was mostly dominating but occasionally was hurt by inconsistent command. Cook has a nearly unhittable breaking ball and the velocity to succeed in the late innings. The rookie faced numerous high leverage situations last season and will be able to build on that experience in his sophomore season.

Although most pitchers benefit from pitching at the Coliseum, Cook was actually appreciably better on the road last season. All four of the homeruns he allowed were at the Coliseum and his ERA was nearly three runs higher at home. That split isn't likely to sustain itself over the course of his career, given the pitcher-friendly nature of the Coliseum. Cook was almost equally good against lefties and righties, making him an ideal candidate for both set-up and closing duties. As a whole, batters hit only .166 against him.

The A's will have to keep an eye on the workload for Cook. Although his 73.1 innings weren't anywhere close to a career-high (Cook was a starter for the first three years of his pro career), his 71 regular season appearances were a career-best. And he also pitched in four of the A's five post-season games.

The A's will also keep a close eye on Doolittle, who threw 72 innings between the minor and major leagues last season. It was Doolittle's first season as a pitcher since 2007, when he was a weekend starter for Virginia. The A's have already said that both Cook and Doolittle will be worked into spring games later in camp and the A's may look to limit their work during the season on back-to-back days whenever possible.

Sean Doolittle made a quick transition from position player to pitcher.

Doolittle had a solid rookie season and he could be even better in 2013 as he starts to incorporate more secondary pitches into his arsenal. In 2012, Doolittle relied heavily on his fastball, throwing it 86% of the time. As the season went on, he worked in a change-up and a curveball a little more, but he was still primarily a one-pitch pitcher. That one pitch was obviously very effective. Doolittle's release point was difficult for hitters to pinpoint, making his 93 MPH fastball appear a lot harder. However, he will fare better this season if he is able to keep hitters more off-balance with his softer offerings, especially his change-up. Doolittle has above-average command (must run in the family, as his younger brother Ryan has walked only 18 in 146 career minor league innings), a trait that will serve him well as a late-inning reliever.

Blevins was the opposite of Doolittle, utilizing his fastball less than 50% of the time while mixing in his off-speed offerings liberally. Blevins' cut-fastball was particularly effective last year, as was his big, looping curveball. Not surprisingly, Blevins was more effective against lefties last season, but the left-hander had a lot of success against right-handers, as well. Over the course of his career, Blevins has demonstrated his effectiveness against both lefties and righties.

The A's yo-yoed Blevins between Triple-A and the major leagues in 2011, but he is now out-of-options and should be a fixture in the bullpen all season, health-permitting.

Favorites For The Final Spots

It isn't clear whether the A's will open with six relievers or seven, although seven is more likely given the youth in their starting rotation. Three relievers in this group are out of options, giving them an edge for those final spots: Blackley, Resop and Neshek. The newly acquired Rodriguez, as well as Norberto and the veteran Okajima will also factor heavily in the race for those final spots.

Travis Blackley found a home with the A's.

Blackley is close to a lock for a roster spot because of his versatility. The left-hander split his time between the A's rotation and their bullpen last year and proved capable of adding to his pitch count quickly. Unless injuries hit the A's rotation this spring, Blackley will likely start the year in the bullpen as a long reliever, but he will be a top option the moment the A's need a spot starter or an injury replacement.

Blackley threw 107 innings last season, and the majority of those innings came as a starter. He did make nine relief appearances, however, logging 23.1 innings. In that role, he had a 1.54 ERA and an 0.99 WHIP. Blackley's splits against lefties and righties were nearly identical and he should be used in a variety of roles this season.

Resop has similar versatility from the right-side and both he and Blackley will be stretched out some this spring. Resop was acquired from the Pittsburgh Pirates this off-season for minor league prospect Zach Thornton. Resop was a reliever exclusively for the Pirates for the past two seasons, but he has plenty of experience in his career as a starter.

Resop tossed 73 innings for the Pirates last season, posting a 3.91 ERA. His K:BB ratio wasn't impressive (46:24), but he did a good job keeping the ball in the park (six homers allowed). His K:BB and K/9 were well off of his career averages, but his fastball velocity was relatively close to his career norms (he averaged 92.7 MPH on his fastball in 2012 after averaging around 93.5 the past few years). It remains to be seen whether Resop's strike-out numbers were a one-year anomaly or a sign that the 30-year-old is losing some of his effectiveness. He did add a cut-fastball last season and could use it more with the A's this year.

Chris Resop could fill several roles for the A's this year.

Neshek doesn't offer the versatility of a Blackley or a Resop, but he has the ability to dominate in the role that he does hold. Like Chad Bradford and Brad Ziegler, Neshek is a right-handed sidearmer who dominates same-side hitters and struggles badly versus left-handers. Neshek faced only 16 lefties last season, but he allowed five hits (including two homers) and two walks. Against righties, however, he was dominant. Sixty-one right-handers faced Neshek last season and only five times did they collect hits. He walked five of them and struck-out 15.

Although Rodriguez, Okajima and Norberto can all be sent back to Triple-A, all three have a strong shot of beating out someone for a roster spot if they pitch well this spring.

Rodriguez was acquired by the A's along with Jed Lowrie in a five-player deal with the Houston Astros. The right-hander was a workhorse in the Astros' bullpen last season, tossing 70.1 innings. His ERA was an ugly 5.37, but he struck-out 78 and his FIP was 4.22. Rodriguez is a hard-thrower, who averaged nearly 94 MPH on his fastball last season. He also has a curveball, change-up and a cutter. Rodriguez's command can get him in trouble at times. If he can clean up his command, he could be a late-inning option for the A's this season.

Norberto was one of the A's most effective relievers last season until he was sidelined by shoulder soreness. He has arrived at camp healthy and throwing the ball well. However, earlier this week, his name surfaced on documents from the clinic in Miami that has ensnared a growing list of players in a performance-enhancing drugs scandal. It is too early to say whether Norberto will be impacted by the scandal, however.

Can Hideki Okajima recapture his 2007-08 form?

Assuming he is healthy and not facing any kind of disciplinary problems, Norberto will make the A's decision on the final spots in the bullpen a difficult one. The hard-throwing southpaw was effective in his 52 innings last season. Hitters had a tough time making solid contact against him. He averaged nearly 93 MPH on his fastballs and kept hitters off-balance by mixing in his mid-80s slider and change-up liberally. Norberto could be at a small disadvantage being left-handed given that the A's already have two lefties locked into their bullpen in Doolittle and Blevins, although he was actually more effective against right-handers last season.

Okajima was a late addition to the organization. The veteran signed with the A's to a minor league deal during the first day of camp. The left-hander spent the 2012 season in Japan, where he posted a sub-1.00 ERA and looked a lot like the pitcher who dazzled for the Red Sox in 2007 and 2008.

The native of Japan has never been a hard thrower, but he made hitters look silly early in his major league career thanks to a deceptive delivery and a solid mix of secondary offerings. During his career, Okajima smothered left-handed hitters while pitching decently well against right-handers. If he makes the A's bullpen, he would be an interesting compliment to Neshek from the left-side. Okajima has an out-clause in his contract that allows him to leave the A's if he isn't in the big leagues by June 1.

Battling For A Roster Spot

Scribner and Figueroa both made contributions to the A's bullpen last season as rookies and could factor into the bullpen discussion at the end of camp. Even if they don't make the roster out of camp, they figure to be called on at some point during the season. Werner and Chavez will be in the competition for rotation spots but could factor in the bullpen discussion by the end of camp.

Pedro Figueroa made his major league debut last season.

Scribner was acquired by the A's from San Diego before the start of the 2012 season. He appeared in 28 games, often in a middle relief role that called for multiple innings. In his 35.1 innings pitched, Scribner posted a 2.55 ERA. Scribner also threw 35.2 innings for the River Cats, and he had a 3.03 ERA and 38 strike-outs for Sacramento.

Last season was a good one for many reasons for Scribner, the most important being that he was able to pitch a full season after missing much of the 2011 campaign with right shoulder soreness. Scribner has a four-pitch mix that allows him to turn over a line-up, if necessary. His fastball averaged roughly 90 MPH last season, and he complimented that with a slow curveball (72 MPH), a cut-fastball and the occasional change-up. Scribner's work both in Game 162 of the regular season and Game 5 of the ALDS endeared him to the coaching staff and he could work his way into a regular role with Oakland this season.

Figueroa also had a breakthrough season on the health front. The 2012 campaign was his first full season since 2009. The left-hander had Tommy John surgery midway through the 2010 season and he wasn't able to get back to pitching in games until late in the 2011 season. Despite missing so much time, Figueroa started the year in Triple-A even though he had never pitched above Double-A before the 2012 season. He had a solid season with Sacramento, posting a 2.62 ERA and striking out 40 in 44.2 innings. Figueroa allowed only one homer in Triple-A and he had a strong groundball rate.

Figueroa did have his struggles at the big league level, however. Although his ERA was 3.32, he walked more batters than he struck-out (15 walks against 14 strike-outs) and he allowed two homers in 21.2 innings. Figueroa averaged 95 MPH with his fastball and also flashed an upper-80s slider and a decent change-up. His command issues in the big leagues suggest that he could use a little more seasoning at Triple-A, but with his stuff, he could force his way onto the roster if he is throwing strikes this spring.

Werner, acquired from San Diego this off-season, made a remarkable climb through the Padres' system. The left-hander was pitching in the independent leagues when the Padres signed him in 2011. By the second half of the 2012 season, Werner was in the San Diego rotation. Werner got off to a good start with San Diego, but he ran into trouble during his final few starts and finished his rookie season with a 5.58 ERA in 40.1 innings.

Although Werner has been a starter exclusively during his minor league career, he could receive consideration for a bullpen role. Werner held big league lefties to a .205 BA and a 632 OPS last season, while right-handers had a .316 BA and an 881 OPS against him. Werner is not a hard-thrower, but he has an excellent change-up.

Chavez has been enticing teams for years with his raw stuff. The right-hander has a solid fastball that sits around 93 MPH and he also throws a hard cutter, a slider, a curveball and a change-up. Chavez pitched well as a starter last season in Triple-A for Las Vegas (Toronto organization) and Sacramento, but he struggled in two short stints as a reliever in the big leagues. The 2012 season was Chavez's first as a starter since 2004, when he was pitching in the Midwest League for the Texas Rangers.

Command has always been an issue for Chavez, especially at the major-league level. He will need to throw strikes consistently to receive a shot in the big leagues with the A's. If they don't make the A's roster out of spring training, Chavez and Werner both figure to be a part of the Sacramento rotation.

Looking To Make An Impression

The A's have a solid group of non-roster invitees in camp, as well as a new member of the 40-man roster, all of whom will be looking to put themselves in the discussion for a mid-season call-up.

Brian Gordon pitched in Korea last season.

Ekstrom, Gordon, Newby, Olson and Thomas all signed with the A's as minor league free agents this off-season. All five bring plenty of experience with them, as well as track records of success in the minor leagues. The A's have frequently promoted players – especially relievers – signed to minor league deals to the big leagues mid-season, so this group could become factors for the A's during the year.

Ekstrom has nearly 900 innings of experience in the minor leagues and 61 big league innings. The right-hander pitched in the Rockies' organization last season and he had 15 appearances for Colorado out of the bullpen. The 29-year-old was drafted by the Padres in 2004, and he has pitched in the San Diego, Tampa Bay and Colorado organizations. Ekstrom was a starter early in his career with San Diego, but he transitioned to the bullpen in 2008. All of his major league appearances have been in relief.

Gordon spent the 2012 season pitching in Korea. The 1997 draft pick by the Arizona Diamondbacks was an outfielder for the first 10 years of his career before moving to the mound. As a hitter, Gordon had a 780 career OPS. In 2011, Gordon made two starts for the Yankees during inter-league play and received two at-bats. He walked once and struck-out once. Gordon has five major league pitching appearances under his belt, three in relief and two starts.

Newby has yet to make the major leagues in his eight years in professional baseball, but he has had a solid minor league career. The right-hander carries a better than 3:1 K:BB ratio for his career and has 551 strike-outs in 492 innings. Newby also generates a lot of groundballs. He hides the ball well. Although he has been a reliever for most of his career, Newby can also start and he is coming off of a solid stint as a starter in the Dominican Winter League.

Garrett Olson has major league experience as a reliever and as a starter.

Olson will be looked at mostly as a starter during spring training, but he could be a factor in the long relief discussion should Blackley be pushed into the rotation. The former supplemental first-round pick of the Orioles was once a top prospect, but struggles with his command in the big leagues prevented him from establishing himself as a major leaguer. Despite walking 143 batters in 287 major league innings, Olson has still had big league stints in six separate seasons. The left-hander has been both a starter and a reliever in the big leagues.

Thomas, another southpaw, had the distinction of playing for both sides of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry last season. The veteran has pitched for the Mariners, Pirates, Red Sox and Yankees during his seven-plus year professional career. Thomas mixes a fastball that sits 89-91 MPH with a slider and a change-up. Thomas has been a workhorse throughout his career. He will need to prove he can throw strikes consistently to get a look by the A's this season.

Can Arnold Leon make his major league debut this year?

One player who has rarely had trouble throwing strikes during his career is new 40-man roster member Arnold Leon. Leon was signed out of the Mexican League by the A's as a 19-year-old in 2008. He was on a fast-track to the big leagues when he suffered an elbow injury the first month of the season in 2010 that led to Tommy John surgery. Like Figueroa, Leon's first full season after surgery was last year. Leon made solid progress in 2012, moving from High-A to Triple-A and posting solid numbers along the way.

In 66.2 innings between three levels, the now-24-year-old had a 2.70 ERA and a 74:23 K:BB ratio. He struck-out 16 in 11.1 innings in a stint in the Mexican Winter League during the off-season. Leon has mostly been a reliever since coming to the A's, but before the surgery, the A's projected Leon as a starter and had worked him into the rotation at the Double-A level. It isn't out of the question that Leon could return to the rotation this season now that he has a full healthy year under his belt, but he is more likely to remain in the bullpen.

Leon has a number of pitches at his disposal, including a slow curveball that induces plenty of swings-and-misses. His fastball rarely tops 92 MPH, but he mixes his pitches well and has good command. If Leon makes a strong impression on the A's coaching staff this spring, he could have a similar role to the one that Scribner had with Oakland last season.

Here For The Future

Andrew Carignan is making his way back from Tommy John surgery.

It may seem odd to have a player in this section who has already pitched in the major leagues, but Carignan's situation in big league camp this spring is a bit unique. The right-hander tore his UCL last season and had Tommy John surgery. During the off-season he was removed from the 40-man roster, but he cleared waivers and was invited to camp as a non-roster player.

Despite being removed from the roster, Carignan is a player the A's still see as part of their future. They have liked the late-inning potential of the North Carolina alum since they drafted him in 2007. Carignan has struggled with injuries throughout his professional career, missing virtually all of the 2009 season with a forearm strain and part of the 2011 season with a foot injury. In 2010, Carignan struggled to regain his mechanics after missing so much time in 2009.

When healthy, Carignan can reach the upper-90s with a fastball that has good movement and is difficult for hitters to pick up. He also has a wipeout slider. Carignan has always been wild, although he walked only one in 13.1 innings with the River Cats last season. Carignan isn't expected to throw in games until June at the earliest and may not be an option for the A's this season. However, if he is healthy next year, Carignan should be competing for a spot in the big leagues once again.

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