A’s re-tooled bullpen built to back young rotation

For every question the Athletics rotation poses the bullpen offers an answer.

Oakland has its closer in Blake Treinen, who leans heavily on baseball’s best sinker, according to MLB Pitch Quality. In Chris Hatcher, the A’s have an effective set-up man who lest a slight stumble in the closing week was potent to say the least, allowing five runs in his first 20 innings with the team. And thanks to a few perhaps under-the-radar moves in the offseason the club did more than enough to shore up its middle relief issues of 2017.

The last time Oakland’s was a top-five bullpen in the American League was 2014 — the last time the A’s played in the postseason. That is the type of unit general manager David Forst and VP of Baseball Operations Billy Beane are trying to build, not a bottom-three unit like they have put on the field in two of the three seasons since.

Treinen, whose 2.13 ERA in 35 games with the A’s last season was bolstered by 10 scoreless outings to close the season, is a huge step in that direction.

As is the addition of dominating lefty Ryan Buchter, whose career .163 batting average against by lefty swingers is only marginally better than the miniscule .180 by righties. Just like his career 1.052 WHIP, which is only slightly more impressive than the 2.85 ERA he has posted through 139 big league games.

By comparison, Cleveland’s Andrew Miller, almost unanimously considered the top bullpen southpaw in the business, allowed a .181 batting average against by lefties in his best season, 2016, when he finished ninth in the AL Cy Young race — as a set-up man.

Buchter, brought to Oakland as part of a trade with the Kansas City Royals, joins Daniel Coulombe, who spent significant stretches as manager Bob Melvin‘s lone left-handed reliever a season ago.

Perhaps a product of overuse, Coulombe’s numbers began to climb precipitously toward the end of 2017. A 0.844 WHIP and 0.84 ERA ERA in June led to a 1.444 WHIP and 4.00 ERA in July, which fell further in August (1.667 WHIP, 9.00 ERA). With Buchter joining him in 2018, Coulombe should see usage closer to the 35 appearances of 2016 than the 72 of 2017, which will help him improve on his overall impressive numbers of last season.

Giving Coulombe that help was something Forst had his heart set on throughout the offseason:

“We have been focused on this for a while. Since after the season we’ve been saying that finding another lefty for the ‘pen is a priority. … It just took longer than we expected.”

Taking his time turned out to be to Forst’s benefit as it produced one of the game’s better lefties. But Buchter is far from the only new face in the Oakland relief corps.

Veteran Yusmeiro Petit, added via free agency, brings veteran savvy and a wealth of experience. Oh, and historical success. Petit is three years removed from setting the big league record for consecutive batter retired — 46. But age and arm mileage has done little to hurt his effectiveness.

The 33-year-old is coming off a season in which he appeared in 60 games, including one start, with the Angels, working 91-1/3 innings but finishing with a 2.76 ERA, 101 strikeouts and sub-1 WHIP (0.953). After 10 seasons in the majors and 257 appearances (59 starts), Petit is still more than capable of offering Melvin lights-out work in middle relief, long relief and if needed late-inning.

He plans to bring that level of pitching to Oakland. He also expects to take on more of a leadership role, telling SFBay:

“I’m trying to bring the team experience, in regard to the World Series … helping the young pitchers, showing them to work the right way.”

The same can be said of Emilio Pagan, who was acquired in the trade that sent Ryon Healy to Seattle.

Pagan doesn’t carry the big league resume of Petit, but he definitely offered promise in his one season with the Mariners, converting eight holds while eating 50-1/3 innings in 34 outings. And his 3.22 ERA — after five earned runs allowed in his two appearances — is nothing to shake a fist at.

He will fit nicely into that middle relief, swing role joining Petit.

Having the two new A’s in that spot will free up Ryan Dull to take on the red alert role on a more full-time basis. Like Petit, Dull is the owner of a very noteworthy MLB record — stranding his first 36 inherited runners in 2016. It is crucial for a team with postseason aspirations to have a guy that can come into a mess and quickly clean it up. He told SFBay that he is happy to be that man:

“Eventually somebody has to do it. I don’t mind doing it, whatever I can do to help everybody else. … I’ve gotten used to it and learned to read the game.”

With Treinen, Dull, Coulombe and Hatcher set in their roles and additions Pagan, Petit and Buchter with their spots carved out nicely that leaves little to no space in the ‘pen. That means one of two things: either Oakland opens the season with 13 pitchers for a second-consecutive season or Santiago Casilla has waivers in his future.

The two options are equally possible.

On one hand, A’s starters have completed just three games in the past two seasons combined placing a high demand on bullpen arms. On the other, Casilla, who opened 2017 as the closer, blew seven of 23 save opportunities — converting just 77 percent of chances. Now one year older, Casilla’s 1.356 WHIP and 4.27 ERA at 36 were the worst he’s finished a season with since 2009 (1.779 WHIP, 5.96 ERA).

Struggles, advanced age and precious few roster spots could spell an end to Casilla’s second stint in Oakland. But the focus for the A’s has not to do with individuals, rather putting a top-five group on the bullpen bench.


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.