Would the A’s 2016 bullpen be able to hold up without Sean Doolittle?

Oakland A’s closer Sean Doolittle has not pitched in a spring training game since March 13. According to MLB.com’s Jane Lee, the reason he hasn’t pitched has been due to a slight triceps strain.

While that doesn’t sound too bad and barring any setbacks Doolittle is still slated for the closing duties on Opening Day at O.Co Coliseum against the Chicago White Sox, losing Doolittle for any period of time could spell disaster for the entire A’s pitching staff. At least last season it did.

In 2015, Doolittle began the season on the disabled list recovering from a partially torn rotator cuff. He returned in May to make one mediocre mid-game appearance and was promptly put back on the disabled list with a separate and unrelated shoulder issue. That issue landed him on the 60-day DL and limited him to just 12 appearances all season.

sean doolittle, closer, returns, success, 2016 bullpen
Sean Doolittle. Getty Images.

Upon his return in September, he appeared to be the Doolittle of old. His velocity was back up, he allowed few walks and amassed 15 strikeouts in just 13.2 innings pitched. In his last home outing of the season he pitched a five-pitch bottom of the eighth. It was a beauty but by that time it was too late to save the A’s season and the game was another mark in the loss column.

What happened that took the A’s from the playoffs in 2014 to the cellar of the American League West in 2015? Some people will say defense, while other may say they need more offense. Both statements would be correct but what caused the A’s close to exactly one-third of their 94 losses was the bullpen. A’s relievers not named Sean Doolittle were charged with 31 total losses and converted just 24 of 48 save opportunities.

Pitchers who had pitched brilliantly for the A’s in recent years especially the A’s seventh-inning pitcher Dan Otero and usual set-up man, former All-Star Ryan Cook couldn’t seem to function without Doolittle. By the end of the season both pitchers had spent time with Triple-A Nashville and Cook had been released by the team. Otero was released after the season.

Ryan Cook, 2016 bullpen
Rya Cook. Getty Images.

Unfortunately this sudden and odd inability to pitch continued to trickle down to other pitchers who had been effective with Doolittle in the bullpen as the closer. Lefty-specialist Fernando Abad post a 1.57 ERA in 2014. In 2015 his ERA ballooned to 4.15. Similarly, everyone else who pitched at least 10 games out of the bullpen with the exceptions of Tyler Clippard, Fernando Rodriguez and Drew Pomeranz had ERA’s well above 4.00.

Over the offseason the A’s vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane and GM David Forst completely revamped the bullpen for 2016, most notably bringing in veterans John Axford and Ryan Madson – essentially to take the places that Otero and Cook left hanging in 2015. They got lefty specialist Marc Rzepczynski to replace Abad, along with right-hander Liam Hendriks. The only two remaining members with guaranteed spots in the bullpen are Doolittle and right-hander Fernando Rodriguez.

The A’s, on the whole, usually carry an extra pitcher than a extra guy on the bench, which leaves one open spot for either rookie right-hander Ryan Dull, who impressed during his September call-up last season and lefty Felix Doubront who has the capacity to be both a long reliever and a spot starter. Essentially he’d be the new Drew Pomeranz. Also on the fringe of making the bullpen are left-hander Eric Surkamp and right-hander R.J. Alvarez.

As much as Ryan Dull deserves a chance to prove himself in the 2016 bullpen, Doubront has three obvious advantages to winning the final bullpen spot. One, he’s left-handed, without him there would be just one lefty in the bullpen and relying on Rzepczynski the entire season is unrealistic. Second, there’s the fact that he can serve in two roles in case of an injury to the anyone on the starting staff or any continued struggles by fellow left-handed starter Rich Hill. A third reason for Doubront to take the final bullpen spot is that the veteran is out of options and the A’s don’t have the safety net of sending him to Triple-A and bringing him up as needed.

Marc Rzepczynski, 2016 bullpen
Marc Rzepczynski. Getty Images.

So, let’s assume the Opening Day A’s bullpen looks as follows: Felix Doubront, Liam Hendriks, Marc Rzepczynski, Fernando Rodriguez, John Axford, Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle, which is currently the most likely plan. However, if Doolittle is unable to start the season (if that is the case, add Ryan Dull to the group) the A’s do have reason to be concerned as previously noted.

Although this almost entirely new group of pitchers do have a lot of upsides and promise, some can also be seen as risks taken by Beane and Forst. New set-up man Madson had some rough years in his past, missing three seasons due to injury after having pitched eight very good seasons with the Philadelphia Phillies. He actually pitched nine seasons with the Phillies but one was as a starter. That was the only year Madson’s ERA was higher than his 3.59 average ERA over those nine years.

After missing 2012-2014, Madson reappeared with the reigning World Champion Kansas City Royals acting as their set-up man. He pitched 63.1 innings while posting a 2.13 ERA. He has experience as a closer with 55 saves under his belt. He acted as the Phillies’ closer in 2011, saving 32 games in 34 opportunities.

He’s been in high pressure situations winning a World Series ring with Philadelphia in 2008 and another last season with the Royals. Some scoffed at the three-year $22 million contract to the 35-year-old veteran but he’s proven he is healthy and his numbers have been solid throughout a 10 year career. This spring he has yet to allow a run over his five innings pitched. He should be more than capable of taking over the closing duties for Doolittle if necessary.

John Axford isn’t quite as solid as Madson but he should be able to hold down the seventh inning, or eighth if needed. He’s had a few years here and there where his ERA has risen to over the 4.00 mark but over his seven years in the big leagues he owns a 3.55 ERA and even led the National League in saves in 2011 converting 46 of 48 opportunities. So if absolutely necessary Axford could feasibly close for the A’s as well.

John Axford, 2016 bullpen
John Axford. Getty Images.

Plus, Axford is able to rack up strikeouts at a high and consistent rate. In each year of his career he’s struck out more batters than his number of innings pitched. His average number of strikeouts per nine innings is 10.6. Barring injury he should be able to step-up to be the set-up man if needed. Like Madson, Axford has also not allowed a run in five innings this spring and he’s allowed just a single hit which is undoubtedly a promising start.

As for the rest of the bullpen, Hendriks had a rocky beginning to his career attempting to be a starter but once he was moved to the bullpen he has thrived, posting a 2.92 ERA over 64.2 innings for the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015.

If Rodriguez, who has pitched on and off since 2009, can repeat the season he had for the A’s in 2015, he will be a useful tool out of the pen after posting a 3.84 ERA over 58.2 innings. He was one of the few bright spots when it came to Oakland’s bullpen last year. Then you’ve got the two lefties in Rzepczynski and Doubront to round out the group with Dull, Surkamp and Alvarez all ready to bring up in case of emergency.

Fernando Rodriguez, 2016 bullpen
Fernando Rodriguez. Getty Images.

As far as I can see the numbers and backgrounds of these pitchers are all solid save for the three year absence of Madson in the majors. At the same time Madson has put up the best numbers all around, excluding Doolittle whose career, though, has been much shorter. If the A’s were to lose Doolittle whether short or long term, it appears the bullpen would be left in much more capable hands than it was in 2015.

Of course no one could have predicted the downfalls of Otero and Cook and the chaos that would ensure without them and Doolittle, as no one can predict exactly how any player will perform in any given year. This 2016 bullpen is much more seasoned which in relief pitching is a good thing, despite those that think that 35 years old is too old for a pitcher.

However, there are players like Jamie Moyer, for example, who pitched well beyond age 35 (he was 49 when he threw his last pitch in 2012) and found success in the bullpen showing that age isn’t necessarily a bad quality, especially in a reliever.

Experience in higher pressure situations such as being a team’s set-up man or closer (which also makes you the leader of the bullpen) is key in succeeding in those positions. Each of the A’s new pitchers have solid track records and even if something were to happen, they should be able to function effectively with Madson and Axford leading the way.

If the 2016 bullpen works as the well-oiled machine that it should, Beane and Forst will be heralded. If the bullpen crashes and burns like last season, they will be in for a lot of criticism. I just don’t foresee that criticism coming in 2016.

A’s bullpen better equipped for adversity in 2016

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