Despite having the sixth-best bullpen in terms of ERA in the American League last season, the Oakland A's made some significant upgrades to their relief corps during the off-season. They added two of the top relievers on the free agent market in Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes to multi-year deals and signed veterans Rich Harden and Brandon McCarthy to one-year deals. Consequently, coming into camp the A's bullpen picture was relatively settled. Six pitchers were all-but-guaranteed spots and the only real competition was for the spot as the team's seventh reliever – if the A's chose to carry seven.
As they say, the best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry, and on Monday it looked as though the A's masterplan had been laid asunder when All-Star closer Andrew Bailey left the field with what appeared to be a serious elbow injury. The A's announced on Wednesday that Bailey's injury was merely a strained forearm and some torn scar tissue, which should translate to days, rather than months, on the shelf.
The A's have had a few other minor injury scares in relation to their bullpen. Set-up men Michael Wuertz and Craig Breslow have each been slowed by minor ailments, while Harden has yet to pitch in a game thanks to a strained lat muscle. Both Wuertz and Breslow are expected to be ready to go on Opening Day, although Harden's status for the start of the season is up-in-the-air.
The six pitchers who came into A's camp all-but assured of spots in the bullpen were Bailey, Wuertz, Breslow, Fuentes, Balfour and Brad Ziegler. The A's had a number of candidates in camp for that possible seventh slot. These candidates fell into three categories – former members of the A's bullpen, pitchers also competing for the fifth starter slot and relievers brought into camp on minor league contracts or as rookies on the 40-man roster.
In the first category are left-hander Jerry Blevins and right-hander Joey Devine. Both Blevins and Devine are coming off of injuries. Blevins had off-season hip surgery, while Devine missed all of the last two seasons after having Tommy John surgery during the spring of 2009. If Bailey were to start the season on the disabled list, the A's probably like to turn to at least one of these two pitchers to fill his roster spot. Neither pitcher, however, is distinguishing himself this spring, which could make it hard for the A's to carry them on Opening Day.
Of the two, Blevins is likely to get more of the benefit of the doubt with his spring struggles. The southpaw has never pitched well in his three spring trainings with the A's, but he has a career 3.97 ERA in 113.1 regular season innings for the A's since 2007. Last year he was a vital part of the A's bullpen, appearing in 63 games and posting a 3.70 ERA with 46 strike-outs in 48.2 innings. On many major league teams, Blevins would be a shoo-in for the final spot in the A's bullpen, but given that he had off-season surgery and that the A's already have two lefties in the bullpen (Breslow and Fuentes), he isn't a sure thing for Opening Day. If Bailey lands on the disabled list for the start of the regular season, Blevins should be on the Opening Day roster if he is healthy because Fuentes would likely be used more in a closer's role than in a traditional left-handed set-up man's role until Bailey returned.
After missing two seasons with an elbow problem, Devine had to come into camp and prove that he was not only healthy, but game-ready. Thus far, Devine has remained relatively healthy (although he has battled some normal soreness), but his command has been shaky, to say the least. In 4.1 innings, he has walked eight and hit a batter. On the plus side, he has allowed only one hit. When healthy, Devine has arguably the best stuff of any A's reliever and he posted an 0.59 ERA in his last season before getting hurt, so the A's will find a place for him if he can reclaim his command.
Fortunately from the A's perspective (and perhaps unfortunately from the perspective of Blevins and Devine), both relievers have an option remaining, so the A's can stash them in Triple-A until an injury creates a need for Oakland to call on them. The A's could also opt to carry one of them as the seventh reliever and work him back into the fold slowly in low leverage situations, although both would benefit more from having regular work in Triple-A rather than the occasional mop-up appearance.
It is more likely the A's will fill their seventh bullpen spot (should they choose to carry seven relievers) with a "longman"-type who can work multiple innings should an A's starter exit early. The A's starting rotation is expected to be one of the best in baseball, but the A's have almost always carried a long reliever, so that shouldn't change this season. Oakland has a number of pitchers in camp competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, and it is likely that the seventh reliever will come from this group.
Heading the list of fifth starter candidates are veterans Harden and McCarthy. As mentioned earlier, Harden has yet to pitch in a spring game thanks to a muscle strain, so he is effectively out of the fifth starter race. However, he still has time to build up his pitch count for a long reliever role by Opening Day, should the A's decide the bullpen is where they see Harden fitting in all season. If they like him as a starter, however, then he will start the year on the disabled list and work his way back into starter shape at extended spring training and on a rehab assignment with Sacramento.
McCarthy has thrown well this spring and has made a strong case to be the fifth starter when camp breaks. In 13.2 innings, McCarthy has a 3.29 ERA and he hasn't walked a batter. Most importantly, his fastball is sitting in the low-90s and his stuff looks as good as it has in years (McCarthy has battled shoulder problems for much of the past three seasons). McCarthy does have big league experience as a reliever, so he could fill that longman role should he not win a starting job, but he has an option and the A's may choose to keep him stretched out in Sacramento instead if he doesn't win the fifth starter job.
Bobby Cramer and Tyson Ross both made starts for the A's last season and both have pitched well enough this spring to be strongly considered for the A's fifth starter spot. Going into his start on Friday, Cramer has a 3.00 ERA in nine innings this spring, while Ross has not allowed a run in 9.2 innings. Although Cramer has done some relieving in the minor leagues, the A's view him as a starter, so he is likely going to make the team only as a starter. Ross is viewed by many in the organization as a permanent fixture in the A's rotation down-the-road, so it would make sense for the A's to let Ross develop as a starter either as the A's fifth man or in Sacramento. However, the A's demonstrated last season that they were willing to put those developmental plans on hold to have Ross' talents on the roster, even as a reliever, so he could land on the A's roster as the long reliever, especially if Bailey lands on the DL at the start of the season and the A's feel they need another hard-throwing righty in their bullpen mix.
Josh Outman is another fifth starter candidate who was also going to be considered for the long relief role at the start of camp. The left-hander has experience both as a reliever and as a starter with the A's, although it was as a starter that he really shined in 2009. Outman had Tommy John surgery midway through the 2009 season and he has been working his way back from that injury ever since. Like Devine, Outman's command has been off all spring and he will almost certainly start the season in Triple-A, where he can continue to work off the rust from more than a year of not pitching.
Newcomer Guillermo Moscoso is also a candidate for the final spots in the A's bullpen and rotation. The former Rangers and Tigers prospect was acquired by the A's this off-season and he is on the 40-man roster. Moscoso has mostly been a starter during his professional career, but he has some experience coming out of the bullpen as well. He had been pitching well this spring until a bad last outing, but he remains a long shot to win the A's fifth starter spot. Moscoso may be a good fit for the longman role, however, given that he has some big league experience, can work multiple innings and has pitched enough at the Triple-A level that he doesn't need further development time. If he doesn't make the A's roster, he will be insurance for the rotation and the bullpen in Triple-A.
Fellow newcomer Yadel Marti is making a push for a spot on the A's roster. The former Cuban national team star, Marti is making his US baseball debut, but he has a lot of experience pitching against high-level competition on the international stage. Mostly a starter in Cuba, Marti does have experience relieving, as well. The right-hander doesn't throw hard, but he gets excellent movement on his pitches and has a deceptive throwing motion. Marti has made hitters look uncomfortable this spring and he has yet to allow a run in seven innings of work. He has walked one and allowed two hits while striking out seven. Marti isn't on the A's 40-man roster, but that shouldn't be a big impediment to him making the team should the A's front office decide to go that route.
Trystan Magunson, acquired as part of the Rajai Davis trade this off-season, is on the A's 40-man roster. The towering right-hander is in his first big league camp and he has struggled thus far, allowing three homeruns in 6.1 innings. Magnuson is likely to start the season in the River Cats' bullpen. Fautino De Los Santos, a relief prospect who is on the 40-man roster, was optioned to Triple-A as part of the team's first spring cuts and is slotted either for the bullpen either in Sacramento or Midland.
The A's brought into camp a number of relievers on minor league deals, but none of them distinguished themselves in game play with the exception of Fernando Cabrera. Joe Bateman, Vinnie Chulk, Daniel Farquhar, Gabe DeHoyos and Willie Eyre have already been sent back to minor league camp, but Cabrera remains in big league camp. He had yet to allow a run before his last spring appearance and he has a 2.45 ERA in seven innings with eight strike-outs and one walk. He is a longshot to make the A's bullpen, but Cabrera does have 175.1 major league innings with Cleveland, Baltimore and Boston under his belt, so he could be a good option for the A's if they are looking for experience in that seventh-man role.