With just weeks before pitchers and catchers report to spring training, A’s manager Bob Melvin said he is already thinking about how to arrange the back end of his bullpen but leaving his options open. He does have quite a few.
Among the A’s new pieces in the bullpen: John Axford, the closer last season for the Colorado Rockies; Liam Hendriks, who made more than half of his appearances last year in the seventh or eighth inning for the Toronto Blue Jays; and Ryan Madson, part of the late-inning bullpen trio for last year’s World Series champion Kansas City Royals.
And that doesn’t include new left-handed specialist Marc Rzepczynski or Sean Doolittle, now the elder statesman of the A’s bullpen and the projected closer.
“We know we’re going in with Doolittle closing and we have some pretty potent arms ahead of him,” Melvin said at A’s FanFest on Sunday. “How it plays out exactly, I’m not sure yet.”
What is clear is that after a 2015 season in which their bullpen posted the highest ERA (4.63) in the American League and contributed to an Oakland-era record 35 one-run losses, the A’s made retooling the relief corps a top priority.
Oakland began its bullpen makeover by trading pitcher Jesse Chavez to the Blue Jays for Hendriks in late November, then had a whirlwind week in December during which it traded for Rzepczynski from the San Diego Padres, and signed Axford and Madson to multiyear deals. The result, the team hopes, is a much deeper, more experienced unit that will lock down games in the late innings.
“Just seeing those three righties that they brought in, seeing how hard they throw, makes it exciting,” Rzepczynski said. “Especially if Sean is healthy, it’s going to be a scary ’pen.”
To have guys that know what it’s like to be in a winning clubhouse, and know what it takes to be on a winning team, that helps a lot more than just in the bullpen.
A’s closer Sean Doolittle, on the team’s new relievers
Although not necessarily a harbinger of effectiveness, the A’s relief corps lacked power last season. Oakland’s bullpen’s average fastball velocity, according to the analytics website FanGraphs, was 91.4 mph, which ranked 28th in the major leagues. Axford (96.1 mph), Hendriks (94.9) and Madson (94.2) ranked in the top 50 among relievers in 2015, and Doolittle – who made just 12 appearances last season because of injury – averaged 94 mph on his fastball in 2014.
“Everybody seems to have a big fastball – and they’re not afraid to use it,” Doolittle said. “And they’re known for going out there and attacking guys, high-strikeout guys. So I’m excited to watch them do their thing, learn what I can from them, and just be a part of the bullpen with these guys.”
Madson is the most experienced of the newcomers with 10 seasons in the majors, but he stepped away from baseball amid injuries in 2014. He returned last season and was a revelation for the Royals, posting a 2.13 ERA in 68 games and helping Kansas City weather the loss of closer Greg Holland by sliding into a late-inning role.
Axford closed for several years with the Milwaukee Brewers and returned to that role last season with the Rockies, saving 25 games with a 4.20 ERA. Hendriks, in his first full season as a converted reliever, had a 2.92 ERA in 58 outings for Toronto, striking out 71 in 64 2/3 innings.
Rzepczynski has found a niche against left-handed hitters – whom he has held to a .215 average and .573 on-base plus slugging percentage in his major-league career – and said he knows he could be used at any point in the game when the A’s need to retire a left-hander.
“When I (talked to the A’s), they had spoken about me being a one-inning, late-inning, important-situation guy,” Hendriks said. “But then they added Madson and Axford and Rzepczynski, so it’s all depending.
“At the end of the day, if we’re doing well, I don’t care what role I’m in. I just want this team to be doing pretty well.”
4.63 ERA by Oakland’s bullpen in 2015, highest in the American League
That was too often not the case last season when Melvin went to his bullpen. But when asked Sunday why the A’s should improve on last year’s last-place finish, Melvin and several players pointed first to the new-look relief corps.
“I’m really excited because these are veteran guys, but also veteran guys that have been on winning teams,” Doolittle said. “I think having that kind of experience is really important when you have a young team overall that’s trying to have a bounce-back year.
“To have guys that know what it’s like to be in a winning clubhouse, and know what it takes to be on a winning team, that helps a lot more than just in the bullpen.”
- Location: Hohokam Stadium, Mesa, Ariz.
- Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Feb. 21, position players, Feb. 26
- First game: March 3, at Angels (Tempe, Ariz.), 1:10 p.m.
- Opening Day: April 4, vs. Chicago White Sox, 7:05 p.m.
- Location: Scottsdale (Ariz.) Stadium
- Reporting dates: First practice, pitchers and catchers, Feb. 18, position players, Feb. 23
- First game: March 2, vs. Angels, 1:05 p.m.
- Season opener: April 4, at Milwaukee, 11:10 a.m.
- Opening Day: April 7, vs. L.A. Dodgers, 1:35 p.m.