About two weeks ago, the A’s roster was full of holes and question marks.
The bullpen, a crux of the 2020 team, was no exception. No proven closer awaited the ball in the ninth inning. Jake Diekman seemed primed to step up into the role, while J.B. Wendelken could take over the eighth inning as a primary setup man. They would be quality options, but still question marks in those roles.
Then the A’s front office made a whirlwind out of the final two weeks of the offseason before spring training, executing a quick roster overhaul that gave the team a new-look bullpen.
Safe to say, Wendelken is happy with the reinforcements.
“Hat’s off to the guys who did the signings,” Wendelken told reporters in a video conference on Sunday. “They did really well the past week. We absolutely killed it. All the additions that we have are absolutely gasoline to help us out, for sure, in every aspect of the matter.
“Like I said, I give props to whoever, whenever and however they signed everybody. The bullpen’s back in action.”
All roads are expected to lead to tested closer Trevor Rosenthal, who reportedly signed a one-year, $11 million contract with deferred payments. Oakland also signed veteran Sergio Romo, re-signed resident bullpen “dad” Yusmeiro Petit (Jesus Luzardo’s words, not mine) and acquired steady southpaw Adam Kolarek via trade from the Los Angeles Dodgers.
Wendelken emerged in 2020 as a reliable option in a situational role but wasn’t used in many high-leverage situations. He posted a 1.80 ERA with a 1.12 WHIP and 31 strikeouts in 25 innings and carried a 95 mph fastball. Now he’s likely to settle into a sixth- or seventh-inning situational role along with fellow holdover Lou Trivino.
If you take a look at Wendelken’s pitch types from 2020, you’ll notice his slider usage rate jumped from 4.9 percent in 2019 to 26.2 percent last season. Back in May 2019, Wendelken was making a cameo with Oakland and kicking around the idea of throwing a slider. Pitching coach Scott Emerson showed him a few grips, more as an option to keep guys honest on his heater.
The slider has since developed into a go-to pitch for Wendelken, who said his confidence solidified about a month later during a short outing that lasted just 2/3 innings against the St. Louis Cardinals.
Looking ahead to this season, Wendelken said he also is excited to get to know Romo and learn about his infamous slidepiece.
“I look forward to doing that,” Wendelken said. “It’s still early and not everybody is at full tilt yet. It’s just one of those things where it’s going to take time before I can actually pick his brain. Right now, just want to get through spring and throw what I got until we can make it better.”
Last season’s playoff run was fueled by a reliever group that led MLB with a 2.72 bullpen ERA, though it was exposed in the postseason. Wendelken was on the mound for the start of the bullpen’s implosion in Game 1 of the ALDS against the Houston Astros, when Marcus Semien’s error loomed large in a 10-5 defeat when he gave up four runs.
But Wendelken has the confidence of his manager, Bob Melvin.
“Each and every year, especially going to this year, too, we have that much more faith in him,” Melvin said. “He makes our bullpen a lot better when you bring in the type of guys that we did and still have a guy like J.B. that can still kind of pitch those middle innings, sometimes in a setup role, he’s got postseason experience now. He’s a bona fide big leaguer now.”
It appears there will be eight bullpen spots in Oakland this season. With MLB rosters set at 26 players in 2021, Melvin said he can’t envision the team carrying 14 pitchers, given the way he likes to tinker with offensive matchups.
“You want to have at least a four-man bench the way we kind of do things,” Melvin said. “One of those is a catcher. So if you only have a three-man bench, you don’t have too many bullets to spend over the course of a game. I would say 13 is a good number for us as far as the pitching staff goes.”