In search of frontline starters, A’s instead beef up bullpen

Athletics starting pitchers finished 2017 with the American League’s fifth-highest ERA and second-fewest strikeouts.

Following the conclusion of the season, GM David Forst identified starting pitching as the Athletics’ most pertinent need. That need has thus far gone unaddressed. Instead, Forst and the A’s braintrust bolstered a bullpen that has been heavily taxed the past two seasons.

The pair of pitching additions Oakland did make offer the combination of youthful power and veteran savvy to that overworked relief corps. Those additions — Emilio Pagan and Yusmeiro Petit — give manager Bob Melvin an abundance of workhorse-type relief arms, which he said turned out to be of greater importance:

“You can only do so much — you only have so much to spend. The bullpen was probably the first focus, and being able to bring Pagan and Petit in here lengthens our ‘pen and gives us some guys that you can use for multiple innings.”

The ability to offer two-plus innings carries added purpose within the system employed by Melvin and the A’s, a team that has recorded just three complete games since the beginning of the 2016 season, leaving more than 550 innings for the bullpen in each of the past two campaigns. And neither have problem filling such roles.

Petit, a World Series winner in 2014 who has allowed two earned runs in 12-2/3 career postseason innings pitched, said he has no preference when it comes to his duties. That is the reputation which has preceded him at each of his five previous big league stops, including four seasons in San Francisco where he set a major league record retiring 46 consecutive batters.

Pagan, who enjoyed a stellar rookie season with the Seattle Mariners a year ago (3.22 ERA, 0.934 WHIP), has already carved out a similar reputation for resiliency. He told SFBay:

“I like to take the ball whenever the manager wants to give it to me, and get as many outs as I can. No matter what inning that is or what part of the game, I just want to do my part to help the team win.”

He says all the right things, but his resume speaks volumes. In 14 of his 34 appearances last year, the 26-year-old righty was used for more than three outs — eight times for more than six outs.Those types of appearances were commonplace for the Oakland bullpen in 2017, reserved mostly for Liam Hendriks (11) and Ryan Dull (8), who combined for 19 appearances of more than three outs.

Hendriks agreed that it will benefit the entire bullpen, pitching staff and team having another two hurlers who can be relied upon for multiple innings in late-game scenarios. Dull seconded that sentiment, telling SFBay:

“We have a bunch of guys that can do a lot of the same things and do it well. if someone else can pick you up one day that keeps you fresh for the next day. That will help the bullpen stay fresher throughout the season.

Beyond their assisting Hendriks and Dull in handling the multi-inning demand, the additions of Pagan and Petit allow the late-inning guys to focus on their own role, with the set-up duties going to Chris Hatcher, according to Melvin. The save opportunities to will continue being funneled to Blake Treinen who, according to the numbers, was one of the most effective closer in the game over is time in Oakland, and, according to MLB Quality of Pitch, did so with the game’s filthiest sinker.

With the eighth and ninth inning locked down, and the middle relief chances spread a bit thinner, that does leave one gaping absence in the bullpen. Less than three weeks from the opening of spring camps, the A’s sit with a single southpaw reliever — Daniel Coulombe.

That, Melvin said, is a hole that will be filled:

“We’ve got one lefty, you end up using that guy quite a bit … that’s an area that we’re targeting. I’ll tell you what, we made some offers to some guys, we just weren’t able to get them here.”

The inability to reel in the big fish free agents can be chalked up as the product of poor records, something that the group expects to change with an improved 2018.

But even with their additions in the bullpen and improved offensive production, the onus will continue to fall on the starting staff, as it does with most successful teams. And while Forst would not turn away from an opportunity to add to his current group, the fact that he and Melvin have shown a willingness to invest this season in the group in-house has pumped confidence into said group. So said Sean Manaea:

“It’s always great when the organization believes in you and think that you can be one of the guys. … The fact that they believe in me and Kendall (Graveman), and all the other guys, it’s huge for our confidence. When they believe in you and they know that you can do great things, that’s when things start turning out well.”

Graveman and Manaea finished the season as the obvious 1-2 punch and both have produced extended runs that would support the trust laid upon them. Still, there is a plethora of more-than-capable starters swimming atop the free agent pool — including All-Star Yu Darvish and former Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta.

Certainly a bit ambitious for a team with the fiscal limitation of the A’s to even indulge in the fantasy of adding such an arm, but the lack of movement in the free agent market over the winter has surprised the Oakland manager, who joked:

“Hopefully a couple (guys) will be available to us for cheaper later on. … it’s surprising, and it’s the big boys, too.”

Wishful thinking for sure. Much more so than believing that the staff of Paul BlackburnJharel CottonDaniel Mengden and Andrew Triggs, led by Graveman and Manaea, and backed by a vast assortments of multi-use relievers will be enough to carry what appears to be a potent offense back to a left-heavy record.


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.