Athletics

How A's bullpen will dictate team's MLB playoffs destiny come October

How A's bullpen will dictate team's MLB playoffs destiny come October

Bob Melvin is exhausting his bullpen not because he wants to but because, as the manager, he has to. More than any other factor, it is the ‘pen that will guide this A’s team to its destiny.

The latest example came Thursday night in Houston. After starter Homer Bailey left in the sixth inning, Melvin needed 11 more outs to secure a win. He turned to five different relievers.

After taking the ball from Bailey, Melvin first went to lefthander Jake Diekman, who then handed it to Yusmeiro Petit, who then gave it to A.J. Puk, who then gave it to Blake Treinen, who then flipped it to closer Liam Hendriks, who ended matters with a whistling fastball past a gazing Michael Brantley.

That delivered a pulsating 3-2 victory over Astros ace Justin Verlander, allowed the A’s to take three of four games in the most imposing home yard in the American League and also moved them into the No. 1 wild-card spot for the first time this season.

On this night, the ‘pen was Melvin’s salvation, warming hearts in the clubhouse and across the fan base.

If the bullpen holds up, there will be October baseball in Oakland, and more than one game. Everything else about this club has been reasonably reliable, if not downright remarkable.

The frequent home runs – seven players have at least 20 bombs; 12 more would set a franchise record – are awe-inspiring, an impressive show of muscle. They light up the scoreboard, energize the dugout, build leads, wipe out deficits and deliver the occasional walk-off victory.

No real worries here.

The A’s have the surest gloves in the league, with first baseman Matt Olson, third baseman Matt Chapman and shortstop Marcus Semien having particularly stellar seasons. Fielding has not always been properly appreciated in Oakland, but this group is proving its importance.

No real worries here. At all.

The starting pitching has been better than it looks. Dominating performances have been few, but Oakland’s 73 quality starts rank fifth among MLB’s 30 teams. Sean Manaea, the most gifted established starter, has been almost unhittable in his first two starts since returning from shoulder surgery.

Oakland is, with good reason, as confident as it is formidable. The A’s believe in themselves and can find proof in their 10-4 record against the Astros and Yankees over the past four weeks. More to the point, their 68-35 record since May 14 trails only the East-leading Yankees (73-35) and is two games better than that of the West-leading Astros (67-38).

The A’s are a season-high 27 games over .500 as they float into north Texas for a three-game weekend series against the mediocre (74-74) Rangers, their opponent in six of the last 15 games. The other opponents are the definition of deficient: The Royals (three games), the Angels (two) and the Mariners (four).

But one of the lessons learned while reporting and commenting on hundreds of baseball games over the years is that no part of a contending team dictates fortunes quite like its bullpen. A good ‘pen adds points to the manager’s IQ, while a bad one subtracts from it.

A great bullpen wins championships.

Which brings us back to Melvin’s dilemma. His bullpen is good, but it also has an MLB-high 28 saves. It might be better if it weren’t so burdened. Of the six pitchers with the most appearances in the A.L., four are A’s. Joakim Soria is sixth, with 66 appearances. Hendriks is tied for third with 68, Diekman is second with 69 and Petit is first, with 73 – roughly every other game.

Though these foreboding numbers are somewhat mitigated by relatively short stints, they still indicate a heavy load.

Plenty of worries here.

The A’s last season, preparing for a playoff run, stacked their bullpen with veterans, collecting closers from teams without hope. Jeurys Familia from the Mets. Fernando Rodney from the Twins. They were setup men, handing off to Lou Trivino, who was solid, and Treinen, who was sensational as the closer.

Oakland’s postseason lasted one game, in which both Rodney and Treinen were abused.

[RELATED: A's make a statement to rest of MLB by winning final three vs. Astros]

This time around, the A’s decided to sit tight, adding only Diekman. There is more depth among the starters and also more trust.

But make no mistake, the fate of the A’s lies with their bullpen. It will, in the end, either warm hearts or break them.

Why A's should either trade or non-tender All-Star Blake Treinen

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USATSI

Why A's should either trade or non-tender All-Star Blake Treinen

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, we will examine 10 A's players who may or may not return to Oakland next season. For each player, we will provide reasons why the A's should bring him back and reasons why they should not, followed by a final determination.

Blake Treinen, RHP

Contract: Final year of arbitration (projected to get $7.8 million after earning $6.4 million this season)

Reasons to bring him back

In 2018, Blake Treinen enjoyed one of the greatest seasons in MLB history. The right-hander went 9-2 with 38 saves and a 0.78 ERA, notching 100 strikeouts in 80 1/3 innings.

Unfortunately, Treinen followed that up with the worst season of his career, going 6-5 with a 4.91 ERA in 2019, ultimately losing the closer job to Liam Hendriks. Still, Treinen's stuff looked dominant at times and he could certainly bounce back in 2020.

Treinen is still just 31 years old and should have some productive years ahead of him. His fastball averaged 97 mph this season with explosive movement. If he can improve his command, Treinen could still be a productive reliever moving forward.

Reasons to let him go

Treinen is coming off an incredibly disappointing season. He entered the year as one of the top closers in baseball, but quickly lost his closer job due to injury and poor performance.

Treinen's 4.91 ERA, 1.62 WHIP, and 5.14 FIP were all career worsts, as were his 37 walks in just 58 2/3 innings. He saw his season come to a premature end when an MRI revealed a stress reaction in his back. And pitchers and back injuries don't mix well (see: Marco Estrada). Tendering Treinen a contract would be a major risk.

Final verdict

Treinen could very well return to being an effective relief pitcher, but the A's can't afford to take that chance for nearly $8 million. That money would be better spent on multiple relievers to help shore up the team's shaky bullpen.

[RELATED: A's stay or go candidate for 2020 season: Jake Diekman]

Between Treinen's on-field struggles and the injury concerns, Oakland would be better off seeking an offseason trade of its former All-Star closer. If the A's can't get a deal done, look for a non-tender.

Why Jake Diekman's command issues could mean A's move on in offseason

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USATSI

Why Jake Diekman's command issues could mean A's move on in offseason

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, we will examine 10 A's players who might or might not return to Oakland next season. For each player, we will provide reasons why the A's should bring him back and reasons why they should not, followed by a final determination.

Jake Diekman, LHP

Contract: $5.75 million mutual option for 2020 ($500,000 buyout)

Reasons to bring him back

Diekman's stuff is undeniable. The 32-year-old left-hander boasts a 96-mph fastball along with a wicked slider, making him a tricky at-bat for right-handed and left-handed hitters alike.

Despite a 1-7 record and 4.65 ERA this season, Diekman notched 84 strikeouts in just 62 innings. For his career, he has averaged 11.2 punchouts per nine innings.

Another reason to keep Diekman is Oakland's lack of left-handed relievers. Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk both figure to move to the starting rotation next year and Ryan Buchter's return is far from certain. As a result, Diekman could be the only southpaw in the A's bullpen.

Reasons to let him go

While Diekman's strikeout numbers were highly impressive, his lack of command became a major issue down the stretch. He walked 39 batters this season, including 16 in 20 1/3 innings with the A's.

That contributed significantly to Diekman's disappointing 1.42 WHIP and 4.65 ERA. For $5.75 million, you'd have to think the A's would want someone more consistent and reliable in the late innings.

[RELATED: A's 3B coach Williams will manage in Korea next season]

Final verdict

Oakland is unlikely to bring Diekman back next season for a couple of reasons. Far too often, he just doesn't know where his pitches are going. Throughout his career, Diekman has averaged five walks per nine innings. That's a serious problem for a setup man.

The other factor is Diekman's $5.75 million price tag. That is a high figure for any non-closer, but particularly worrisome for a setup man who has proven to be inconsistent.

The A's would probably be wise to spend that money elsewhere.