Changes do need to be made, but more importantly, the roles in the bullpen need to be defined. So what exactly went wrong?
Going into 2015, the A’s knew they would be without closer Sean Doolittle until at least May. He had a partially torn rotator cuff, came back from it, made one appearance, and went back on the disabled list. Even with All-Star set-up man Tyler Clippard to fill in for Doolittle, he wasn’t allowed many save opportunities because the team couldn’t get from the fifth or sixth innings to the ninth without blowing the game. That’s on the bullpen.
No one could have predicted the downward spiral that would befall former All-Star set-up man Ryan Cook, or the steady regression that Dan Otero – the A’s typical sixth- or seventh-inning guy – would go through. Both Cook and Otero were sent down to Triple-A Nashville. Otero made it back to the big leagues in September, but Cook had already been released. Otero has only slightly improved, and if he continues down the path he is on it’s likely he won’t be with the team much longer.
In a year of what you might call bullpen turmoil, where no one had a set role and one day a player might be in Oakland, then be playing in Nashville the next, it doesn’t seem improbable that the lack of structure caused a bit of disruption to players’ routines.
The A’s have a surplus of pitching at almost every level. The race for the starting rotation will likely be between Sonny Gray, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Chavez, Aaron Brooks, Chris Bassitt and Sean Nolin. A.J. Griffin and Jesse Hahn will likely be in the mix for the starting rotation as well, if they are deemed healthy.
Griffin had a setback while recovering from Tommy John surgery and Jesse Hahn was placed on the 60-day disabled list with a forearm injury; neither’s health is guaranteed for the season. The same goes for right-hander Jarrod Parker. Parker is coming off of his second Tommy John surgery and third elbow procedure, rendering it unlikely he’ll ever start another game. That doesn’t mean that he can’t pitch in relief, but at this point his return time is unknown.
As for the actual bullpen you can count in September call-up Ryan Dull, who impressed not only the fans but the coaches over the season’s final month to be in the running for a spot, perhaps even as a set-up man for Doolittle. Dull had a 0.70 ERA in 61 IP at Triple-A Nashville last season.
If Sean Nolin, who posted a 2.66 ERA over 47.1 innings at Nashville, doesn’t make the starting rotation he would be a a great left-hander to pitch in long relief. Being that Nolin is out of options, he’ll likely stay with the club for the entire season. Switch-pitcher Pat Venditte gives the A’s more innings than a normal pitcher and offers such versatility that he’ll have a place in the bullpen. Lefty specialist Fernando Abad had some trouble last season but is just one year removed from a 1.57 ERA.
Until the statuses of Parker, Griffin and Hahn are known, it appears that the A’s bullpen can be fixed with a little restructuring and a couple of new faces, not the overhaul that even I once believed they needed. Of course, executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and general manager David Forst may make a trade I can’t predict. They are known for doing that, afterall.
Yet, as things stand today, the 2016 Athletics bullpen should look something like this:
- Sean Nolin – LHP
- Pat Venditte – LHP/RHP
- Fernando Abad – LHP
- Ryan Dull – RHP
- Sean Doolittle – LHP
There will be one or two more bullpen members, likely a right-hander to pitch out of the bullpen in long relief, out of the crop of pitchers that will be fighting for a spot in the A’s starting rotation. They don’t need to make a trade or sign a free-agent in order to repair their bullpen. They need to structure it, allow each member to have a certain roll and routine. The talent is actually there, although it may have been hidden in 2015.
If the A’s mix in a couple of new faces from inside the organization, have a healthy and strong Doolittle return to his role as the closer, and keep things structured, they shouldn’t feel the need to make a trade or pay free agent prices to be able to put their bullpen back in order.
Sometimes, you don’t need a total re-build. Just a little re-structuring.