Axford injury forces early evolution of A’s bullpen

When the Oakland Athletics and manager Bob Melvin made the decision to ride into Opening Day with an eight-man bullpen, they knew the decision had a shelf life. But they had to have expected the group to last through the season’s first series.

The A’s (1-1) placed John Axford on the disabled list Wednesday after the reliever felt pain in his throwing shoulder while warming up in the seventh inning of Tuesday’s 7-6 loss.

Melvin said Axford had no pain in that right shoulder prior to Tuesday, calling the issue a “complete surprise.”

The skipper added that his expectation is that the 34-year-old will be back in the bullpen sooner rather than later, saying that the new 10-day DL played a role Axford hitting the list at all:

“With the new DL now, it’s a shorter period of time, and we can actually back-date him three days if we have to so it’s just a week. He’s getting and MRI and we’ll know more a little bit later.”

“The Ax Man” has yet to appear in a game this season. In 2016, his first season in Oakland, he finished 6-4 with a 3.97 ERA. He also converted three saves and struck out 60 in 65-2/3 innings.

Replacing Axford on the roster will be Jesse Hahn, the odd man out among the six A’s vying for a spot in the Opening Day starting rotation.

The inclusion of Hahn and exclusion of Axford, Melvin said, will force a significant shift in his relief group:

“(We’ll use Hahn) for a little more length, to have a starter back there. And we’ll move Frankie Montas up. We’re not afraid to use Frankie in some plus games. With Jesse it’s more multiple inning-type things.”

The significance being that Montas, who the A’s acquired, along with Wednesday’s starter Jharel Cotton, in a July trade that sent Josh Reddick and Rich Hill to the Los Angeles Dodgers has long been the discussion of a position change.

A career starter, Montas features closer stuff — a fastball in the high-90s and a “wipe-out” slider — along with a history of injuries that often accompanies those pitches. He has been placed on an inning limit this season — though both Melvin and VP of Baseball Operations Billy Beane are unwilling to commit to an exact number — and will likely be kept to some sort of limit until he exhibits assurances that those issues are a thing of the past.

With Oakland’s assertion that there is no clear closer on this team, choosing to go with a closer-by-committee approach, may open the door to Montas getting some save chances and potentially separate himself in that spot.

The A’s pitching staff also got some good news Wednesday when starter Chris Bassitt (returning from Tommy John surgery) threw a bullpen.

Melvin said that while the 28-year-old hurler is still at least a month away from rehab starts, this is a major step in his recovery:

“To finally be able to get on a mound and throw to hitters, and go through the incremental process to know that you’re healthy enough to do it and let it go, it’s a big day for him. We’re looking forward to getting him back.”

The man known as “BoMel” said he has been impressed with the diligence of Bassitt on the long road to recovery, re-stating that his team is anxiously anticipating his return:

“There are certain guys that just look like an uncomfortable at-bat, and he is one of those guys. He’s tall, he’s lanky, he’s got elbows and arms flying everywhere. He throws hard, and his ball moves all over the place. Yeah, we’re looking forward to getting him back.”

As far as the unavailability of Santiago Casilla in Tuesday’s loss, one day after needing just 15 pitches to seal an Opening Day win, Melvin said that will not be the case moving forward. He said that due to Casilla’s late arrival at camp — caused by issues with his work visa — and the markers he had to reach before being declared eligible by the club for the April 3 opener.


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