Looking ahead to next season, the A’s will have a nice collection of parts from which to build their bullpen.
However, identifying a full-time closer is one major item for the spring training to-do list.
That’s not a knee-jerk reaction to Friday’s 7-6 walk-off loss to the Rangers, in which Ryan Madson blew his seventh save of the season as Texas erased a 6-5 deficit in the ninth.
Madson has done an admirable job as Oakland’s closer, particularly considering this wasn’t a role he was originally slated for. The A’s signed him to a three-year $22 million contract in the offseason to be a shutdown setup man for Sean Doolittle. But Doolittle was still finding his form during spring training after prolonged shoulder issues sidelined him for most of 2015.
Madson was manager Bob Melvin’s choice for the ninth from Opening Night onward, even though he maintained early on that he was picking his closer based on matchups. The 36-year-old Madson has responded with 30 saves, just two shy of the career-high 32 he notched with the Phillies in 2011. At this stage of his career, the A’s probably couldn’t have expected more in turning to Madson as the regular closer.
But given his age, and the fact he’s been prone to the occasional ninth-inning mishap, it’s fair to say that the A’s best bullpen scenario for 2017 would probably have Madson returning to a setup role. Yet for that to happen, someone else needs to emerge as closer.
Doolittle is the logical candidate to return to his former role. He once again was hindered by shoulder problems this season. But lately he’s been showing the life and velocity on his fastball that’s so crucial for him. He’s also mixed in the occasional slider with success, and should that become a consistently reliable second offering next season, Doolittle could find himself back handling the ninth, though his health can’t exactly be taken for granted.
John Axford, who like Madson has prior closer experience, has battled inconsistency. Liam Hendriks has emerged as an effective reliever since returning from a triceps strain, and Ryan Dull enjoyed his record-setting run of stranding runners on base in the first half. But none of them seems an ideal candidate to close based on their total body of work.
It’s also hard to see the A’s going out this winter and spending big to acquire a closer, given how aggressive they were last offseason, spending $32 million on multi-year deals for both Madson and Axford, plus trading for Hendriks and Marc Rzepczynski (who has since been dealt away).
The A’s may have multiple decent options to close, but no slam-dunk favorite. Their situation could be a lot worse, but it leaves a big question to answer as the offseason approaches.
Though his night was overshadowed by the walk-off loss, A’s center fielder Brett Eibner enjoyed his biggest game as a major leaguer, hitting a three-run homer with a career-high four RBI. Eibner lined an RBI single in the fourth and followed with a three-run laser over the wall in left in the sixth.
Now’s the time to shine for the 27-year-old Eibner, who hadn’t reached the majors until the Royals called him up in May. He was traded to Oakland for Billy Burns in July but had been mostly quiet since joining the A’s until this road trip. He’s seen time in all three outfield spots, and the A’s are busy evaluating lots of players because they’re looking at an unsettled outfield situation entering next spring. Left fielder Khris Davis is the only player guaranteed to start, and even he figures to see lots of time as the designated hitter.