A’s rebuilt bullpen addresses greatest weakness of 2015

The most important roles to fill on a Major League pitching staff are those of the staff’s ace and closer.

Recent history has shown that having a dominant front-end starter and reliable closer greatly increases a team’s chances of claiming the game’s greatest prize. In a pair of former first-round draft picks, the Oakland Athletics have exactly that.

Sonny Gray, 26, finished third in the American League CY Young race a year ago, and is among the league’s elite starters. Sean Doolittle, 29, is a 2014 All Star and boasts a career ERA just a hair above 3. To get through a long season and into the postseason, however, the two key contributors need a supporting staff.

In a 2015 season that finished with the Oakland bullpen posting a 4.63 ERA (third-worst in MLB), it was no surprise that the A’s finished a league-worst 19-35 record in one-run games. Addressing the issue of their relief pitching was at the top of the front office’s to-do list this past offseason.

Additions of Ryan Madson, John Axford and Marc Rzepczynski has put manager Bob Melvin in the enviable position of having nearly endless options in those tight, late-game situations.

At A’s FanFest on Jan. 26, Melvin talked about the shortcomings of his bullpen last year and how the front office addressed them:

“If you look at last year, for the most part, we’d lose close games because we’d give up some runs late and the first thing this organization did was go out and sign some high profile bullpen guys. I know everybody feels good about that, so we like our team.”

A huge part of 2015’s struggles, according to Melvin, came from a lack of power arms with which to finish close games. Additions of the big-name relievers provide exactly that.

The three newly minted bullpenners bring varying levels of experience and success. While Axford (career: 28-28, 3.52 ERA) has seen the most time, and success, in a closer’s role with 141 saves, Rzepczynski brings unorthodox mechanics from the left side as a proven left-handed specialist (11-24, 3.96 ERA). Madson, though, brings nearly a decade’s worth of experience pitching in the pressure of the postseason race.

While Madson (48-32, 3.45 ERA, 55 saves) boasts the greatest amount of playoff seasoning – posting a 2.91 ERA in 43.1 innings over five postseasons – all three have pitched into multiple Octobers.

It is that experience that Doolittle is most excited about:

“I like the way things are shaping up… The guys that we brought over are proven veterans guys that have been on winning teams recently. That will help not just the bullpen but the team as a whole as well.”

The most recent of that winning comes with Madson who served as middle relief for the Kansas City Royals through the title run of a year ago.

Along with the lack of late-inning power arms, Oakland’s bullpen struggles also stemmed from the inability to fill the shoes of Doolittle who was limited to just 12 appearances with a strain to his throwing shoulder.

Doolittle, however, assured SFBay of his health, saying that he feels great and is excited to head into Spring Training with “no restrictions.”

Like the lefty closer, Gray went into the offseason with some questions surrounding his health after straining his hip in his final start of 2015. Like Doolittle, though, the 2015 All-Star offered assurances regarding his health, outlining his new workout regiment which is focused on flexibility training and core strengthening in hopes of maintaining season-long health:

“If I could just stay healthy a whole year, make 33 or 34 starts – get out there and compete every five days – then all the numbers will play out the way they’re supposed to.”

Gray, who led Oakland to a 3.91 rotation ERA (No. 9 in MLB), will likely be joined by a trio of returning righties – Jesse Hahn, Chris Bassitt and Kendall Graveman – on the starting staff. The youngsters will be joined by free-agent acquisition Rich Hill.

The 36-year-old has pitched in 11 seasons as a major leaguer, his best of which came as a Chicago Cub in 2007 when he went 11-8 with a 3.92 ERA, starting 32 games.

Though his career numbers (26-23, 4.54 ERA) are not exactly what a fan base could expect from a team looking to fill the role of number two starter, it is Hill’s veteran leadership that Melvin claims will be leaned upon.

Serving as a back-up plan, should one of the aforementioned hurlers see early-season struggles, Melvin expects third-year Athletic Jarrod Parker to make a full return to health and form. And, while the skipper said that Parker will be eased back into his duties, he claims the 25-year-old righty is “feeling good:”

“We feel like, if all these guys are healthy, not only do we have a rotation that we feel will be productive, but we feel like we have some depth.”