A's Bullpen Setting Up to Be a Strength
Such was Billy Beane's thought when he did something in January that may have puzzled casual observers. Instead of continuing to try to upgrade an offense that was clearly the team's biggest weakness, the A's general manager added two more free agent pitchers to a staff that had already led the league in ERA.
The fewer runs you allow, Beane figured, the fewer you have to score.
While offensive additions like David DeJesus, Josh Willingham and Hideki Matsui have been the focus of most of the discussion about the improved A's, the club is also excited about a bullpen that may be the best in baseball.
"The names may not be as popular as any other teams, but the quality might be as good as anybody," manager Bob Geren said.
With the additions of free agents Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour, who each signed two-year deals in January, the A's now have a bullpen that could include as many as seven pitchers who have been successful in the big leagues pitching the eighth or ninth innings.
"I've started to lobby to see if we can make four innings the mandatory amount of work for a win," joked starter Dallas Braden. "It's funny to think about it, but we can honestly match up after that."
Yes, every bullpen looks good in February. It's also true that past performance is not always a reliable indicator of future performance, especially with relief pitchers. That being said, the A's excitement seems warranted.
Start with closer Andrew Bailey, the rookie of the year in 2009 and a two-time All-Star. In his two big league seasons, Bailey has 51 saves, a 1.70 ERA and a WHIP of 0.907. Bailey, 25, was out the end of last season because of a minor elbow cleanup, but so far his rehab has gone well. He said he'll be pitching in exhibition games in a week.
Bailey and Michael Wuertz were both hurt down the stretch last season, forcing the A's to rely heavily on Craig Breslow and Brad Ziegler, which was one of the reasons that Beane felt the need to add Fuentes and Balfour.
"If we are going to contend late in the season we can't be going in with two back-end guys and no one else," Ziegler said. "It's good to have a lot of depth, and it's high quality depth. It's not just a bunch of arms. It's good arms."
Fuentes, 35, has been a closer for most of his career. Over the past six years, he has averaged 30 saves with a 3.14 ERA, pitching for the Rockies, Angels and Twins. He went to the postseason with each team. As a lefty, he gives Geren the option of using him in the ninth instead of Bailey if an opponent has two or three lefties due.
Balfour, 33, was a key component of the Rays bullpen during their two playoff seasons in 2008 and 2010. Over his past three years with Tampa, he had a 2.98 ERA.
The other returning players have had nice under-the-radar careers the past few years.
Breslow, a lefty who closed at the end of last season when Bailey and Wuertz were out, has a career ERA of 2.87 in parts of five seasons. The 30-year-old was one of the most coveted lefties last year at the trading deadline, but Beane wasn't going to move a good lefty with a cheap contract. Breslow is signed for $1.4 million in his first arbitration-eligible season.
Wuertz, 32, emerged as the A's eighth-inning man in 2009, when he posted a 2.63 ERA with a WHIP of 0.953. Wuertz got off to a horrible start last year but then he pitched well for a couple months before he got hurt. The former Cub has a career ERA of 3.45.
Ziegler, 31, set an American League record in 2008 by beginning his career with a streak of 27 consecutive scoreless innings. He became the A's closer at the end of that season, allowing the A's to trade Huston Street. A side-arm right-hander, Ziegler has a career ERA of 2.51. Despite those numbers, Ziegler is probably sixth on the A's relief depth chart, behind Bailey and two setup men from each side.
The two wild cards are Joey Devine and Rich Harden, both of whom have shown they have electric stuff if they are healthy. The latter is a huge question mark, though. Devine had an 0.59 ERA and he allowed 23 hits in 45 2/3 innings in 2008, his only year with the A's. Since then he's missed two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. Harden's story is well known. He has always pitched well as a starter, but never been able to stay healthy. Harden began camp as a candidate for the No. 5 starter job, but he suffered an early lat injury that may have already put him into the bullpen mix.
That list of eight pitchers does not even include lefty Jerry Blevins, who has been sometimes very effective over parts of three seasons with the A's.
With so many choices, the A's would seem to be covered even if a couple of the pitchers get hurt or struggle, which is certainly going to happen. Still, they figure to have enough depth to take pressure off the starters, who are all young and probably shouldn't be pushed too hard. It could also affect the way Geren manages the offense.
"Having Balfour and Fuentes, they shorten the game," Geren said. "You can bunt a guy in the sixth or seventh instead of the eighth or ninth, because you think if we get a run here, we're going to win. There are so many different opportunities to help the team win that these guys can bring us."