The Los Angeles Angels already had Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton. Then the Texas Rangers traded for Prince Fielder and the Seattle Mariners brought in Robinson Cano. The Oakland A's, not in the market for big-name sluggers like their division counterparts, are entering the season hoping to combat those teams in a much more affordable way: with a revamped bullpen.
"You pinch yourself," Oakland A's manager Bob Melvin said on Saturday. "Bullpen depth is something that every team strives for. Not only do we have it, we have it in numbers."
If there's a theme to be taken from how the A's front office has approached this offseason, it has been with self-awareness. They know they won't out-slug their division this year with an influx of premier bats. Instead they have devoted their resources to their line of defense against those big bats. In doing so, they might have created baseball's premier set of relievers.
"They're nasty," new closer Jim Johnson said of his new bullpen cohorts.
Johnson, acquired in a Dec. 3 trade with the Baltimore Orioles for Jemile Weeks and David Freitas, saved 101 games over the last two seasons. He comes to Oakland tasked with replacing Grant Balfour, who set a franchise record with 44-consecutive saves in a streak that ran from midway through 2012 until July 23 of last year. Johnson will earn $10 million for 2014 after avoiding arbitration.
Johnson is just one of three players brought in to combat the AL West's slew of potent lineups. The A's landed right-handed setup man Luke Gregerson from the San Diego Padres in exchange for outfielder Seth Smith. Then after moving left-hander Jerry Blevins to Washington for minor league outfielder Billy Burns, the A's signed former Braves' lefty Eric O'Flaherty to a two-year, $7 million contract.
O'Flaherty won't be available for the A's at the start of the season. He suffered a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his pitching elbow last season after 19 appearances, requiring "Tommy John" surgery. The timetable for his return to the hill is still up in the air, but the A's are hoping he returns to a big league mound this summer. When healthy, O'Flaherty was one of the premier left-handed set-up men in the National League over the past few seasons.
NEW FACESJim Johnson:
50 SV, 2.94 ERA in 2013
2.88 career ERA
1.73 ERA in 2012
3.35 ERA in 2013
Gregerson was one of the National League's premier set-up men the past few seasons, as well. The right-hander posted WHIPs of less than 1.10 in each of the last two seasons for San Diego, along with a 3.49 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Known for his slider and deceptive short-arm delivery that sneaks up on hitters, Gregerson gives the A's another option late in games to take the onus off incumbent set-up men Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle in late-game situations.
"There's a lot of overlap in the bullpen, which makes it easier on everybody," Johnson said. "Sometimes the big out is in the sixth from a situational lefty. But then you have that situation come up the next day. How many times are you going to go to the well in the same guy? How many times in April are you going to do that? How many times in May?
"If you got a guy that can cover one day, another guy the next day and another guy the following, you save an arm from getting up in April, May and June, it helps in you August, September, October when you need it."
Cook made 71 appearances in each of the last two seasons after never making more than 60 between the minors and majors before 2012. The A's lacked another late-game option from the right side, and Cook's increased workload may have led to an overall drop in production last season. In 2012 with Oakland, he had a 2.09 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. In 2013, those numbers fell to 2.54 and 1.29. The addition of Gregerson will ease the overall reliance on Cook as the A's hope to maximize both pitchers' productivity.
The same can be said for the addition of O'Flaherty, who should help to keep the burden off of Doolittle, especially late in the season. While O'Flaherty likely won't be available until the stretch run, he will provide another option in crucial situations that the A's hope will allow Doolittle to be more effective for the long haul.
O'Flaherty's 1.45 ERA in 161 games was the lowest among all major leaguers with 125 innings over the last three seasons. Should he return to form, O'Flaherty will give Melvin four elite set-up arms to use in late innings after having just two last year.
OUT OF OPTIONSRelievers competing for spots with no more option years
The A's may also receive a boost from another reliever coming back from Tommy John surgery. Right-hander Fernando Rodriguez has been with the A's organization for a year, but he has yet to throw a regular season pitch for Oakland. Rodriguez injured his elbow during spring training last year and had Tommy John surgery early in the season. He should be back during the 2014 campaign and could give the A's another reliever with above-average stuff from the right-side.
In 2013, the A's bullpen was third in the American League with a 3.42 FIP and it has been a critical component of their back-to-back division titles. With the offensive improvements throughout the division, the A's will need it to be even better if they want to play in October for the third-straight season.
The A's bullpen should be well represented in the middle innings, as well. This spring, right-handers Dan Otero, Evan Scribner and Jesse Chavez will be vying with left-hander Fernando Abad for the final spots in the bullpen. All four pitchers have had success at the major league level at various points the past two seasons. Promising young pitchers Drew Pomeranz and Josh Lindblom were also acquired this off-season via trades. Both could be considered for bullpen roles, as well, although the A's see both as potential big league starting pitchers.