AJ Puk

A's GM David Forst says bullpen improvement main priority for 2020


A's GM David Forst says bullpen improvement main priority for 2020

MLB's hot stove season has been lukewarm, to say the least, especially when it comes to the A's. But they need arm help, especially in the bullpen.

Last year's reliever squad sang a different tune from what we heard in 2018. The A's led all of MLB with 30 blown saves last season, and that's something A's general manager David Forst wants to make sure doesn't happen again.

“We need to get better. We need to try and catch the Astros and get out of that one-game playoff,” Forst told MLB.com's Martin Gallegos. “We have a number of things to do, but addressing the bullpen is definitely at the top of the list.”

The AL Wild Card has been a thorn in the A's side in their last three playoff appearances. They've lost the wild-card game each time, including a 5-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays in October. 

The free agency pool for relievers not only possesses a lot of talent, but a lot of those available arms appear to be what the team goes after historically.

Daniel Hudson could be a nice fit with his experience and the way he's made an uptick in his career, despite his age (33). But that reported interest also shows that the A's recent bullpen approach hasn't been working. 

“There’s a lot of talent in our bullpen,” Forst added. “I couldn’t say how many guys we need, but we have to have the depth, both starting, and bullpen, to last over a 162-game season.”

Liam Hendriks took over at the closer role last season and was sensational. He boasted a 1.80 ERA with 124 strikeouts in 85 innings. The 2019 All-Star took the place of Blake Treinen, who wasn't the same from his All-Star campaign in 2018. And we can't go without mentioning Yusmeiro Petit who had a great campaign of his own with a 2.71 ERA with a 0.81 WHIP. 

Forst added he's excited about the future the Green and Gold will bring to the table -- and fans should be as well.

[RELATED: Where A's MVP finalist Semien wants to improve in 2020]

Last season, top A's prospects Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk made short appearances out of the bullpen. But they'll join the starting rotation that will have a healthy Sean Manaea and a full season from Frankie Montas. 

“We feel like we’re going to be able to contend again in 2020," Forst said. "We still have some work to do, but we like our team coming back.”

A's top prospect ranking: Why A.J. Puk comes in at No. 2 overall

A's top prospect ranking: Why A.J. Puk comes in at No. 2 overall

Editor's note: Over the next two weeks, we will examine the top 10 prospects in the A's organization. For each player, we will provide a scouting report and a realistic timetable for reaching the major leagues, as well as what he needs to do to stay there.

No. 2 - A.J. Puk

At 6-foot-7, Puk is quite the intimidating figure on the mound. Add in the fact that he's left-handed and throws 100 mph, and the A's have something special.
Puk, 24, made his major league debut in August and pitched 11 1/3 innings in relief down the stretch. He allowed four earned runs on 10 hits, with 13 strikeouts and five walks.
Overall, it was an encouraging season for Puk, who was coming off Tommy John surgery. He struck out 51 batters in 36 2/3 innings between the majors and minors, and most importantly, didn't suffer any setbacks.
Oakland drafted Puk sixth overall back in 2016 after a stellar career at the University of Florida. Puk's fastball-slider combination can be nearly unhittable, with MLB Pipeline grading the pitches at 70 and 65 respectively on the 20-80 scouting scale.
Puk will move to the starting rotation in 2020, where he'll contribute to arguably the best pitching staff in baseball. Puk will likely be joined by fellow southpaws Jesús Luzardo and Sean Manaea, as well as right-handers Frankie Montas, and Mike Fiers. Chris Bassitt could also play a role in the rotation.
As for Puk, the key next season will be his control. He averaged four walks per nine innings this year between the majors and minors. Puk throws a changeup and curveball, in addition to his fastball and slider, to create a true four-pitch mix. If he can locate his offspeed pitches with more consistency, he should dominate opposing lineups.

[RELATED: Blake Treinen could be non-tender candidate]
If and when Puk puts it all together, he has the potential to be a perennial All-Star. He and Luzardo have an opportunity to become an elite tandem in Oakland for many years to come.

Why A's will be parading World Series trophy through Oakland by 2022

Why A's will be parading World Series trophy through Oakland by 2022

OAKLAND -- Wait till next year.

Those four words have unfortunately become the A's mantra over the last 30 years. But this time, it feels different.

With the talent the A's have in place for the next handful of seasons, this is truly the best chance they've had to win a World Series since their last title in 1989.

Let's begin with the starting rotation, a group once considered the weakness of the team. Now, all of a sudden, it's shaping up to be one of the best in baseball.

Think about this -- Sean Manaea and Mike Fiers -- the A's No. 1 and 2 starters to end this season -- could very easily be their fourth and fifth starters next year. That's because Oakland's first-half ace Frankie Montas will be back from his PED suspension, while top prospects Jesús Luzardo and A.J. Puk are poised to be "stars," as manager Bob Melvin put it.

"We really feel good about the group here," Melvin said. "I believe everybody in that room thinks we will be better next year."

Added general manager David Forst: "You look around that room and see the possibilities going beyond. We're definitely in a different place than we were a year ago after this game, where we were creating a rotation from scratch, almost. Now we have depth on both sides -- position players and pitching -- so it does help you look forward to 2020."

Luzardo, in particular, is endlessly exciting. The hard-throwing left-hander just turned 22 this week, and already, he looks like an ace. Luzardo dominated hitters with his high-90s fastball and a soul-stealing slider, allowing just two runs on six hits in 15 innings, with 20 strikeouts.

Montas, 26, has also shown the ability to dominate opposing lineups. In 16 starts this season, the right-hander went 9-2 with a 2.63 ERA and 1.12 WHIP. Most importantly, Montas looked just as sharp following the PED suspension, limiting the Angels to one run on four hits in six innings, with six strikeouts, as his fastball touched 98 mph.

At 6-foot-7, Puk has already earned comparisons to Hall of Famer Randy Johnson. The 24-year-old southpaw pitched 11 1/3 innings for the A's with a 3.18 ERA and 13 strikeouts after missing the previous year due to Tommy John surgery.

Luzardo, Puk and Montas are all under team control for at least the next four years, while Manaea has three more years of arbitration control. In other words, good luck scoring against Oakland before 2023.

That brings us to the lineup. The A's ranked fifth in MLB with 257 home runs this season, a franchise record, and eighth with 845 runs scored. The scary part is that both of those numbers will likely go up next year.

Oakland returns its top seven hitters and has the option to retain its entire starting lineup. In fact, sluggers Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Ramón Laureano are all under team control through at least 2023, with each still approaching his prime.

Then there's the even younger crop of talent -- prospects like Sean Murphy, Sheldon Neuse and Jorge Mateo. All three enjoyed tremendous seasons in Triple-A, with Murphy and Neuse finding late-season success in the majors.

Oakland's lineup will continue to strike fear into opposing pitchers for years to come, while simultaneously racking up Gold Gloves on defense.

[RELATED: A's plan to focus on situational hitting in spring training]

The A's also have excellent leadership, both on and off the field. Oakland's clubhouse is one of the most cohesive units in the league, thanks in large part to Melvin, but also because of the players. Chapman, in particular, has already developed into a team leader, even at the young age of 26.

"From the minute he got here, he showed leadership qualities," Melvin praised. "I remember when he first got here, during his first half-season here when we were struggling, he told me, 'This is the first losing team I've ever played on and it's going to be the last losing team I ever play on, too.' To this point, he's right. But that's the type of guy he is. His expectation, first and foremost, is to win and to get the most out of himself and his teammates, and that's what leaders do."

So while the sting of Wednesday's AL Wild Card Game defeat will linger in the days and weeks to come, there are brighter days ahead. Mark it down, A's fans -- the Green and Gold will be parading a World Series trophy through the streets of Oakland by 2022.