What A Relief!

There have been a number of factors behind the Oakland A's surprising 17-12 April record. However, perhaps the most impressive aspect of the team in April has been the bullpen. The 2008 A's bullpen features a group of hard-throwers, something new for Oakland. Ryan McGrady takes an in-depth look at the A's present-day bullpen and at who might join the bullpen in the future.

The Big League Bullpen

Over the past four decades, the Oakland A's have become synonymous with certain people, terms and phrases. In the 1970s, it was Charlie Finely and the "Swingin' A's." In the late 1980s, the A's dominated the American League and went to three straight World Series with starting pitchers Dave Stewart, Bob Welch and Mike Moore, a Hall of Fame closer in Dennis Eckersley, and the "Bash Brothers" Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco. And beginning in the late 1990s and continuing through today, the Oakland A's are associated with Billy Beane, phrases such as: "the big three", and terms like small market and "Moneyball."

Keith Foulke is a rare soft-tosser in the A's 'pen these days.
Two constants in Oakland over the last 40 years have been winning and change. Never has this been more evident than this past decade. While the A's annually lost MVPs, Cy Young candidates and All-Stars, they continued to win division championships and challenge for the post-season each year. And thus far it looks as if this tradition of winning after major off-season changes will continue in 2008 and beyond.

During the off-season, most people focused on the fact that the A's were trading away established veterans and figured that a long rebuilding process was underway. But as the now former A's outfielder Nick Swisher once said, "We don't rebuild in Oakland, we re-load." This statement rings true once again this year, as the A's have jumped out to one of the best records in the American League a month into the season. One of the main reasons for the great start this year is the re-loaded bullpen. Over the past couple of years the A's have changed the configuration of their bullpen by adding several power arms to the mix.

In the past, Oakland's bullpen consisted of lower velocity pitchers who relied on deception in order to be effective. The A's used pitchers like submarine specialists Chad Bradford and Mike Venafro, a screwballer in Jim Mecir, Jeff Tam and his sinker, Doug Jones with his wide array of changeups, and many others setting-up unconventional closers Billy Taylor, Arthur Rhodes and Keith Foulke as well as fire balling closers Jason Isringhausen, Billy Koch and Octavio Dotel. Even looking back at the days of Dennis Eckersley and his dominance, the setup men leading up to him such as Rick Honeycutt and Gene Nelson were not overpowering pitchers. Eric Plunk was really the only other hard thrower besides Eckersley (and even Eck rarely threw hard during his Oakland days), and he was only in the A's bullpen for a few years.

Never has Oakland had a power bullpen like today's A's ‘pen. With Andrew Brown, Santiago Casilla, Joey Devine, Alan Embree and Huston Street, the A's have five legitimate power arms, all of which have potential closers' stuff. A's manager Bob Geren doesn't have to rely on a specialist or a gimmicky type reliever to mix and match to try and get through the late innings anymore. He has five hard throwers who are built for all types of batters and situations.

Through the first 28 games (through Tuesday) in 2008, the combination of Brown, Casilla, Devine, Embree and Street has been light's out. In 61 innings this season, they have combined for a 1.77 ERA with 58 strikeouts while walking just 18 batters. These are remarkable numbers and are even more impressive in that many of their appearances have come in close games in which they are trying to hold a narrow lead. Eighteen of the A's first 28 games were decided by three runs or less and the four setup men have racked up 12 holds already. Taking a closer look at this bullpen shows that although they came to the A's through very different routes, they all have a similar skill set and put up comparable numbers to one another.

Joey Devine, acquired this off-season by Oakland, can hit 96 with his fastball.
The A's acquired Andrew Brown from the San Diego Padres in a trade for outfielder Milton Bradley last June and the big 6'6'' right-hander has been impressive for the A's since the trade. Originally drafted by Atlanta in 1999, Brown bounced around the minors going from Atlanta to the Los Angeles Dodgers, from the Dodgers to Cleveland, and from Cleveland to San Diego before they A's gave him his first extended stay in the big leagues last year. In 2007, he struck out 43 batters in a little more than 41 innings to help him earn a spot in the A's ‘pen this year and he hasn't looked back. In 15 innings this season, Brown has yet to allow an earned run while striking out nine and holding righties to a miniscule .103 batting average (2-for-28). The key to his success this year has been improved control, although it could stand to improve more. Brown has pitched around seven walks this year and if he can control his mid- to sometimes high- 90s fastball, he will continue to develop into a quality setup man.

Another hard throwing setup man who has yet to allow an earned run in 2008 is Santiago Casilla. Casilla originally signed with the A's out of the Dominican Republic back in 2000. He dominated batters in the minors and skyrocketed through the A's system once he was converted into a reliever in 2004. In 2005, he took over as the closer in Triple-A Sacramento and nailed down 20 saves while striking out 73 batters in just 48.1 innings. Casilla made brief appearances in Oakland from 2004 through 2006, but was called up for good in June of 2007 and flourished by striking out 52 batters in 50.2 innings.

So far in 2008, Casilla has been one of the best setup men in baseball. In 13.1 innings, Casilla has not allowed a run and has picked up six holds by striking out 18 while walking only two. He has become one of the toughest relievers in the league to hit by mixing his electric 94-98 mph fastball with a devastating slider that he can use in any count against both righties and lefties. Casilla has definitely shown future closer potential so far this year, but for now he'll continue to grow into one of the game's better 7th and 8th inning setup men.

Another right-hander that has been projected as a future major league closer is recently acquired Joey Devine. The Atlanta Braves selected Devine in the first round (27th overall) of the 2005 draft and quickly brought him up to the majors just two months later. The two-time All-American and all-time saves leader at North Carolina State came to the A's this past off-season in a trade for centerfielder Mark Kotsay and has been impressive since being called up from Triple-A Sacramento. After piling up 166 strikeouts in 114 innings in the minors, he has come to Oakland and has posted a 0.90 ERA with 10 strikeouts in his first 10 innings pitched through Wednesday.

Devine's fastball usually sits around 93-96 MPH, but he can run it up to 99 on occasion. His experience closing games shows in that he is very poised on the mound. This became immediately evident the day he was called up from the River Cats. After traveling all day from Sacramento to Toronto and arriving during the game, Devine stepped into a tie game in the 10th inning and hurled two scoreless innings to pick up the win in his A's debut.

Hard-throwing left-handed pitchers are a rare commodity in baseball and the A's are fortunate to have one in Alan Embree. After signing a free agent deal to come to Oakland before the 2007 season, Embree quickly established himself as a reliable reliever and proved to be the most valuable pitcher on the A's staff last season. When an early-season injury sent closer Huston Street to the disabled list, Embree stepped into the closer's role and saved 17 games in 2007. The durable lefty pitched 68 innings and posted a 3.97 ERA with 51 strikeouts.

After a bit of a slow start in 2008, Embree has come on strong by throwing a few more off-speed pitches to set up his mid- to high-90s fastball. Since coming to Oakland, Embree has established himself as one of the better left-handed set-up men in baseball due to the fact that he gets out hitters from both sides of the plate. Righties are hitting just .222 (6-for-27) against him this season. So far in 12 innings, he has a 3.75 ERA with four holds while striking-out 12 and walking just two. As the elder statesmen of the bullpen at 38, Embree continues to throw hard and seems to only get better with age.

Huston Street has 213 strike-outs in 211.1 career major league innings.
At the end of the A's loaded bullpen sits closer Huston Street. After saving 41 games for the University of Texas en route to three consecutive College World Series appearances, Street was selected in the first round (40th overall) by the A's in 2004. After just a few months in the minors, Street made the A's Opening Day roster in 2005 and took over the closer role from Octavio Dotel when Street was just 21 years old. Street's background as a closer at a big-time collegiate program and his mental makeup helped him become a quality major league closer right away.

Now in his fourth season, Street has saved 84 games while compiling a career 2.68 ERA with 213 strikeouts in 211.1 innings. So far in 2008, Street has picked-up eight saves in nine opportunities while posting a 4.38 ERA in 12.1 innings. Right-handed batters are hitting only .207 (6-for-29) against him in 2008, which is actually up from the astonishingly low .185 average righties have against him in his career. Street uses a 90-93 MPH fastball to set-up right-handed batters for his out-pitch, a slider which seems to fall off of a table. He is not able to use this slider as often to left-handers which is why lefties are hitting .277 against him this season. Street is still developing a changeup that he can use against left-handers in order to keep them off-balance and set-up his fastball.

The Future Bullpen

The current configuration of having multiple power arms in the bullpen has helped the A's to get off to their best start since 1992 and has allowed them to sustain late leads, which is especially crucial with a young team that is learning how to win. This new bullpen set-up can continue in Oakland in the future as the A's organization is stockpiling talented young arms at all levels of their minor league system. When evaluating potential big league relievers, it is important to focus on stats such as K:BB ratio and opponent batting average. Relievers often enter games with runners on-base and cannot afford to be wild and must have the ability to consistently retire the first batter they face. These statistics in the minors provide a glimpse into what a pitcher might be capable of at the big league level.

Jerry Blevins had 20 strike-outs in 11 innings in the PCL playoffs last season.
In Triple-A Sacramento, left-hander Jerry Blevins has struck-out a batter per inning and picked up three saves while walking just one. Originally drafted in the 17th round by the Chicago Cubs, Blevins was acquired by Oakland in the Jason Kendall deal last July. In 2007, Blevins struck out 107 batters in 77.1 innings while walking just 18, earning him a September call-up and a likely spot in a future bullpen for Oakland.

Another lefty with impressive numbers at Sacramento is San Jose State product Brad Kilby. In 2007, Kilby started the season at High-A Stockton and didn't stay long as he struck-out 16 batters in 8.1 innings while saving three games. At Double-A Midland, his strikeout totals continued at a rate of more than one per inning when he totaled 69 strikeouts in 65.2 innings. In 2008, Kilby has continued his success in his first action at the Triple-A level. In 13.1 innings, he has held PLC batters to a .180 average while striking out nine with a 2.70 ERA. Kilby throws in the high 80s up to 91 MPH and uses good movement and deception to be successful.

Hard-throwing right-hander Jeff Gray led the Triple-A champion River Cats in both saves and appearances last year with 12 and 46, respectively. The A's 32nd round pick out of Southwest Missouri State back in 2004 pitched exclusively out of the bullpen for the first time in 2007 and did so by leading the organization with 15 combined saves at Midland and Sacramento. Gray touches 95 mph with his fastball and so far this year has 10 strike-outs in 14.1 innings pitched.

At Double-A Midland, the Rockhounds have a few arms piling up strikeouts in the Texas League. Patrick Currin has emerged as one of the best relievers in the A's system so far in 2008. After beginning the season in Stockton where he pitched in six innings and struck-out eight, Currin was promoted to Midland, where he has flourished. Even though he doesn't light-up the radar gun and uses more of a sidearm delivery, Currin gets very good movement on his pitches and finishes off batters with a solid slider. In seven appearances at Double-A, the right-hander out of UNC-Greensboro has shown an ability to pitch multiple innings as well as put up impressive strike-out numbers. In 14.1 innings pitched this season, Currin has 15 strike-outs and a 1.88 ERA to go along with an opponent batting average of .173.

Andrew Carignan earned his first Double-A save on Tuesday.
Another right-hander who was recently promoted into the Rockhounds bullpen is former University of North Carolina closer Andrew Carignan. The A's took Carignan in the 5th round of last year's draft and he has already begun to show high strike-out potential in a short amount of time. He struck-out 19 in 13.1 innings at Low-A Kane County in 2007 and got off to a terrific start at Stockton this year using his mid- to high-90s fastball. Before being promoted to Midland, Carignan pitched 10 innings for the Ports and recorded 17 strikeouts to go along with four saves and an average against of .147. So far in two appearances at Double-A, he has allowed one run and picked up a save.

High-A Stockton is overflowing with talented arms this season. The starting rotation of Trevor Cahill, Fautino De Los Santos, Brett Anderson and recently promoted to Double-A Henry Rodriguez grabs most of the headlines, but there are more potential big league arms on the staff in the Ports' bullpen. Arnold Leon was signed by Oakland out the Mexican League this off-season and he got a look at big league camp this spring. The 19-year-old has dominated California League batters with his 91-93 MPH fastball so far to the tune of a 0.75 ERA with 11 strikeouts and a .103 average against in his first 12 innings.

Right-hander Sam Demel out of Texas Christian, who can hit the mid-90s with his fastball, has also put up impressive numbers this month with 17 strike-outs in 12.2 innings while picking up two saves. These numbers follow up on his 2007 professional debut at both Kane County and Stockton where he combined for a 4.63 ERA to go along with 23 strike-outs and an opponent average against of .235 in 23.1 innings.

Another rising bullpen arm is recently promoted Jose Fragoso. Originally signed by Detroit, Fragoso recorded 53 strikeouts and held opposing batters to a .225 batting average last year for the Tigers' Low-A affiliate before the A's picked him up in the minor league portion of the Rule 5 draft. The right-hander out of the Dominican Republic spent just a few weeks at Kane County and dominated opposing batters, picking up 12 strikeouts while walking one in 5.2 scoreless innings before moving up to Stockton last week. In his two appearances with the Ports, he has worked three scoreless innings.

Even though the A's have a deep system of hard throwing pitchers that does not mean that they have ignored the importance finding quality bullpen specialists. Brad Ziegler is a right-handed sidearm specialist who has yet to allow an earned run at Sacramento this season. After posting a 2.96 ERA with 44 strike-outs in 54.2 innings for the River Cats in 2007, Ziegler has struck seven and posted two saves in 10 scoreless innings this season.

Another successful sidearm specialist in the A's system is Midland reliever Jay Marshall. Marshall spent most of the 2007 season in Oakland after being selected in the Rule 5 draft. He pitched 42 innings out of the A's bullpen and had a 6.43 ERA. The A's were impressed by Marshall's outstanding 2006 season at Single-A Winston-Salem in the Chicago White Sox system where he compiled a 1.02 ERA while striking out 44 and walking only eight in 62 innings. While in the minors, he has consistently shown good command of his pitches and an extraordinary ability to get groundball outs. In 2008, Marshall has thrown 17.2 innings for the Rockhounds with 11 strike-outs, a 1.53 ERA, and a .246 opponent average as he works his way back to the big club.

Starters Who Could Become Relievers

When examining potential bullpen arms in the minor leagues it is also important to realize that many times the best relievers at the big league level actually came up as starting pitchers. There are several examples and many different reasons why this continues to happen throughout baseball. A team may convert a starter because he struggles the second and third time through a team's order, or he has a history of injury and limiting his innings and pitching him out of the bullpen will save on wear and tear and prolong his career. Or a team might not have a need for a starting pitcher and would benefit more from having another quality arm in the bullpen.

Whatever the reason might be, baseball history has shown that many great relievers like Dennis Eckersley and Mariano Rivera, as well as many of today's top relievers, climbed through the minor leagues as starters. In fact, three out of the five power arms in the Oakland bullpen came up as starting pitchers. Alan Embree, Santiago Casilla and Andrew Brown all began their professional careers as starters.

Graham Godfrey could be a late-inning reliever down-the-road.
The A's minor league system is currently loaded with talented starting pitching, but don't be surprised if some of these hard throwers wind up making a big impact in the late innings once they make it to Oakland.

Jared Lansford was originally drafted as a starter and finished the 2006 season at Kane County with an 11-6 record and a 2.86 ERA in 104 innings pitched. After missing almost all of 2007 with an injury, the 6'2'' right-hander has made two starts and three relief appearances in 2008 and has struck-out 19 batters while walking just three in 17.2 innings. Another Stockton right-hander who has been used similarly to Lansford is Graham Godfrey. Godfrey, acquired this off-season from Toronto in the Marco Scutaro trade, is a 6'3'' right-hander. He has made two starts and five relief appearances so far in 2008. In 16.1 innings pitched batters are hitting .254 off of him and he has recorded 18 strike-outs. Both Lansford and Godfrey can touch 93 MPH with their fastballs.

James Heuser has already racked-up 23 strike-outs in 21 innings. Heuser, a big 6'5'' lefty out of Illinois Valley City College, made 26 starts at Kane County last year and posted a 4.12 ERA with 147 strikeouts and only 41 walks in 155 innings for the Cougars. After starting the season out in the bullpen, Heuser was recently added to the deep Stockton starting rotation, but look for him to move up quicker through the organization as a reliever if and when he goes back to the bullpen.

The pitcher with possibly the highest ceiling in the entire Oakland system is Midland starter Henry Rodriguez. Signed as a non-drafted free agent out of Venezuela, the right-hander was in big league camp this spring and opened a lot of eyes around the Cactus League with an explosive fastball has been clocked as high as 100 MPH. Rodriguez started the season at Stockton where he had three dominating starts before being promoted to Midland. In his 17 innings with the Ports, he struck-out 23 batters, walked only five, and had an ERA of 1.59 and an opponent batting average of .145. In his first three starts at Midland, Rodriguez has struggled a little bit with his control by walking 15 batters, but the future remains extremely bright for this hard-throwing righty. With a fastball that hits triple digits, he could easily transition to a late inning role which would make him even tougher on opposing batters. When a starter has overpowering stuff like Rodriguez, he can put in maximum effort and use his best stuff for one or two innings if moved into a relief role rather than conserve his energy over the course of several innings. So it will be interesting to see how Rodriguez fares as a starter at the higher levels of the minor leagues and whether or not he stays in that role when he is called up to Oakland.

Another starter who is putting up extremely high strikeout numbers is Kane County right-hander Craig Italiano. Coming off an injury-shortened 2007 season, Italiano has been lights-out in 2008 through five starts. In 24 innings pitched, he has piled up an astonishing 37 strike-outs while walking just eight to go along with a 1.50 ERA and an opponent batting average of just .191. With the depth of starting pitchers the A's have at all levels, it would not be a surprise to see Italiano, who sits in the mid- to high-90s with his fastball, shifted to a bullpen role as he moves up the organizational ladder.

Conclusion

The A's have a talented core of young starting pitchers at the major league level with Joe Blanton, Rich Harden, Chad Gaudin, Dana Eveland, and Greg Smith. The strength of the organization is its young pitching core that is improving everyday and is rising rapidly through the system. Off-season trades of Dan Haren and Nick Swisher brought the A's young starters Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos and Brett Anderson who have given the A's even more pitching depth to go along with solid draft picks such as James Simmons and Trevor Cahill. When looking at the quality of starting pitching within the organization and seeing the success of the power bullpen at the major league level, one can project that the development of having high-strike-out, high-quality power arms in the Oakland bullpen might become less of a short-term trend and more of another longterm A's tradition.

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