The A’s made a noteworthy offseason addition to their bullpen, but the biggest help to Oakland’s relievers might come from their own starting rotation.
The relief corps shouldered too heavy of a workload in 2016 due to a rotation that struggled with injuries and inconsistency. The bullpen threw a whopping 561 1/3 innings, third most in franchise history behind the 1964 and 1997 squads.
If A’s starters can work deeper into games this season, that alone will take some pressure off the relief corps. But Oakland also added depth and experience to the ‘pen by signing Santiago Casilla to a two-year, $11 million contract. Casilla began his major league career with the A’s before moving on to the Giants, earning three World Series rings and accumulating 123 saves over seven seasons across the Bay.
He adds to an experienced group that includes John Axford, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Dull, Liam Hendriks and Ryan Madson. Four of them — Axford, Casilla, Doolittle and Madson — have substantial big league experience as closers, and that gives manager Bob Melvin flexibility for how he handles the late innings.
With A’s pitchers and catchers reporting Tuesday, we wrap up our position-by-position breakdown with a look at the bullpen:
STARRING CAST: The spring training storyline will revolve around who lines up as the closer. But Melvin doesn’t sound rushed to make that call, and he could mix and match his ninth-inning guys as he’s done at times in previous seasons.
“If you have depth in the bullpen, you can look to do things a little differently,” Melvin said. “Maybe you extend a guy on a certain day and not use him the next day, knowing you’ve got resources behind him. We’re not going to make any proclamations about who the closer is right now. We’ll figure it out as we go a little bit longer in the spring.”
What a boost it would be if Doolittle is full strength after shoulder issues sidelined him for large portions of 2015 and 2016. Of the A’s top six relievers mentioned above, Doolittle is the only left-hander. He would add some needed balance to the righty-dominated relief crew, regardless of what inning he throws.
Madson was signed as a setup guy last winter but took over closer duties early in 2016. He pocketed 30 saves but also tied for second in the AL with seven blown opportunities. Notably, all seven of those came against the AL West. That was part of an over-arching concern, as 19 of the A’s 23 blown saves came against division opponents. That needs to change for Oakland to have any hopes of moving up in the standings.
Expect Dull to be used much as he was last season, with Melvin calling on the escape artist whenever runners are on base and crucial outs are needed. Dull allowed just 13.5 percent of inherited runners to score, third best in the league.
CAMP COMPETITION: With so much late-inning depth, a trade is always a possibility. But barring any moves, the A’s are set at six spots for what’s typically been a seven-man bullpen. It stands to reason they would want a second left-hander in the mix. Daniel Coulombe is the only other lefty pitcher on the 40-man roster besides Doolittle and starter Sean Manaea, so he would seem to have the inside track on the seventh spot entering camp. Coulombe posted a 4.53 ERA over 35 games with the A’s last season, but he’s held first batters faced to a .163 average over his career (8-for-49).
Ross Detwiler, a lefty who went 2-4 with a 6.14 ERA in nine games (seven starts) after being acquired in July, re-signed with the A’s on a minor league deal and could compete for a bullpen spot, particularly if there’s a need for a long reliever.
PAY ATTENTION TO: Highly touted prospect Frankie Montas, who may begin the season as a starter but could factor into the big league picture soon as a reliever. His fastball touches 100 miles per hour, and the 23-year-old Montas held opponents to one earned run in 17 innings during the Arizona Fall League.