Jim Johnson, brought in over the winter to close games for the defending American League West champion A’s, offered this assessment of his new bullpen mates Friday: “They’re nasty.”
Of left-handed setup man Sean Doolittle: “He’s filthy.”
Right-hander Ryan Cook: “I met him two years ago at the All-Star Game, and I didn’t realize how good he was.”
Fellow newcomer Luke Gregerson: “He’s got a nasty slider. And he’s kind of funky.”
Johnson, meanwhile, who saved 101 games over the past two seasons for the Baltimore Orioles, was perhaps the biggest name landed by an A’s front office that dedicated much of its offseason to deepening a bullpen that already was among the league’s best in 2013.
A’s relievers last season posted a 3.22 ERA, third lowest in the A.L., while either winning or saving 70 of the team’s 96 wins. When taking a lead into the eighth inning, the A’s were 77-6, and they finished with the second-most one-run wins in the league (30).
During the offseason, the A’s lost closer Grant Balfour to free agency and traded left-hander Jerry Blevins, their longest-tenured player, to Washington. But they traded for Johnson and Gregerson, a right-hander with a 2.88 ERA in five seasons in San Diego, before also adding left-handed relievers Drew Pomeranz and Eric O’Flaherty.
O’Flaherty, coming off Tommy John surgery, won’t be available for the beginning of the season. But the A’s still extended a two-year, $7 million deal to the left-hander, who had a 1.45 ERA over the last three seasons with the Braves.
The appeal: a potential bullpen including Doolittle and O’Flaherty from the left side, and Cook, Gregerson and Dan Otero from the right, all bridging the gap to Johnson.
“You pinch yourself,” manager Bob Melvin said before the team’s FanFest on Saturday. “Bullpen depth is something every team strives for, and not only do we have it, we have it in numbers.”
Right-hander Jesse Chavez posted a 3.92 ERA last season in 35 games, Evan Scribner has bounced between Oakland and Triple A, and left-hander Fernando Abad arrived in November in a trade with the Nationals. Meanwhile, at least one qualified starter could be a candidate for a long reliever.
“It’s exciting, man,” Doolittle said. “The potential is obviously there. Bob can go a lot of different ways once he gets into the bullpen, and it’s going to be one of those situations where there’s that healthy competition.
“Guys are pulling for each other, but they’re really feeding off each other. If somebody puts up a zero, the next guy has got to pull his weight, put up a zero and get the ball to Johnson in the ninth.”
The biggest difference clearly will be having Johnson, the 30-year-old right-hander who had pitched for Baltimore for his entire eight-year major-league career, on the back end instead of Balfour. The fiery Australian developed a cult following in Oakland with his mound antics and pivotal contributions to the A’s divisional championship teams the past two seasons.
Johnson is more of a ground-ball pitcher. He was a workhorse for the Orioles the last two years, finishing 63 games each season and recording 51 and 50 saves.
Johnson is a student of the game, according to Melvin, who said he was motivated to sign with the A’s after watching how Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young handled their bullpen.
Balfour, meanwhile, set the tone for the bullpen with his intensity and work ethic, which rubbed off particularly on the A’s younger relievers. But both Cook and Doolittle said Balfour’s influence remains.
“We’re going to miss him, of course,” Cook said. “It’s Grant. He’s got personality, he’s got rage, he’s got everything you want. But I think he did a pretty good job of instilling the right qualities in us and knowing what it means to really be a shutdown guy out of the bullpen. So I’ll take that from him as much as I can and move forward.”
As for having a less demonstrative closer, catcher Derek Norris said it’s “definitely a different road, but I don’t think it’s in a bad way.”
“Grant was one of a kind,” Norris said. “He was kind of in his own world with the raging testosterone, this and that, fan favorite. Jim’s more of a sit-in-the-backseat, wait for his job, go do it and walk off. So it’s a different direction, but I think it’s in a good way.”
Johnson said he normally blocks out the crowd when pitching but that he has interacted with the Coliseum’s right-field fans, who embraced the “Balfour Rage.” Johnson called them “good baseball fans.”
“I always felt like the fans were into it, involved, engaging, so it’s going to be fun to be on the other side of that,” Johnson said. “I’m sure they’ll come up with something silly.”
“You’re talking about two guys that have been instrumental in the last couple of years’ success for us,” Melvin said.
Reddick underwent right wrist surgery in late October, and Melvin said his understanding is Reddick is “a full go.” Gray had surgery for a torn ligament in his left thumb just after the playoffs and said Friday he’s fully recovered.