As season nears, A’s bullpen begins to take shape

Just two years removed from being statistically the worst bullpen in the American League, the Oakland Athletics have built one of the deepest.

After finishing the 2015 season last in the AL with a 4.63 ERA and 52.83 (25 out of 53) percent of save opportunities converted, the A’s have formed a group that now includes four veterans who boast significant and successful closing experience.

Two of them, Santiago Casilla and Sean Doolittle, made their 2017 Cactus League debuts in this, the third week of Spring Training. And each left the mound with more positives than negatives.

Doolittle, who tossed a perfect sixth frame in Tuesday’s 4-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies, said that a player can get a bit impatient waiting so long to get in a game:

“I was really confident in our plan — taking it slow — I really believe it’s the right thing to do, but you really get a little anxious wanting to get in there while you’re watching your teammates getting ready for the season. It felt really good to finally get in the game, and be out there with the guys.”

Oakland’s lone left-handed reliever — as of now — had been held back by the team following consecutive seasons slowed by arm injuries. Despite a delayed start to his pre-season preparation regimen Doolittle is confident that he will be at full health and readiness when the April 3 opener comes around, saying that he would likely need five to six games of action, compared to the nine or 10 that many relievers prefer.

Manager Bob Melvin said that Doolittle’s outing, which included a rare changeup — though it missed the zone — was a very encouraging one:

“He looked good. … (He) was throwing his fastball where he wanted to, and had good life at the top of the zone. … For his first time out I thought his command was really good; some times they struggle a little with command early on, but I thought it was really good.”

Just two days prior to the southpaw’s first go-around this year, bullpen mate Casilla took the mound for the first time in the green and gold since departing as a free agent following the 2009 season.

The 36 year-old, unlike Doolittle, has not experienced injury troubles. But, due to issues with his visa, he was a late arrival to camp, showing up in Mesa on March 5, nearly three weeks after all other pitchers. Also unlike Doolittle, his command was not at its sharpest when he gave up two hits, a walk and two runs in 2/3 of an inning in a 9-8 victory over the Chicago Cubs on Sunday.

What he did do was face five major league hitters, stoke his fire a bit and depart without any issues. Through team translator, Juan Dorado, he said that was enough for a first spring outing:

“I felt great. I didn’t try to overdo anything, I just tried to throw my pitches and try to locate my fastball.”

He added:

“I’m just getting my mind ready for the (season). My body feels great.”

Melvin said that Casilla’s first action came a bit quicker than what is usual for most relievers. But the skipper concurred that, all things considered, Sunday’s appearance provided what was expected:

“He’s a little bit behind, we got him in a game a little bit quicker than we normally do, so we just wanted to make sure he got 25 pitches in. We’re not worried about him.”

As Doolittle colorfully explained it, the training wheels are completely off for both.

Joining Doolittle (33) and Casilla (127) among the ranks of Oakland relievers to have recorded more than 30 career saves are John Axford (144) and Ryan Madson (85), both of whom have been in action since the onset of the Cactus League season.

The quartet of veteran late-inning hurlers are joined by Liam Hendriks and Ryan Dull, who during his rookie run in 2016 set the major league record stranding the first 26 runners he inherited.

Of Dull, who he said could one day filling a closer role, the skipper said:

“He can do anything in the bullpen. … But, there aren’t too many guys that do what he does, and there are a lot of reasons for it too: he’s a strike thrower; he’s got multiple pitches he can throw for strikes; he fields his position well; he’s quick to the plate.”

The twelfth and final pitching staff spot is still up for grabs, with Andrew Triggs and Ross Detwiler thus far separating themselves as the favorites, with Detwiler holding the advantage of filling the team’s second lefty spot.

Having depth the likes of which are unrivaled by most clubs has put Melvin in position both enviable and difficult, as he said:

“There’s not a whole lot of competition. There might be one spot, but it’s just finding out where guys go. … It will be difficult decisions, because we feel like any number of these guys can pitch late in games and certainly close games.”

Those decisions, Melvin said, will be made over the final week of Spring Training.


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.