Oakland Athletics 2012 Spring Training Preview: Bullpen

Nathaniel Jue@nathanieljueSenior Writer IIFebruary 29, 2012

Oakland Athletics 2012 Spring Training Preview: Bullpen

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    Football season is over, the NBA is going Linsane and hockey is doing its thing. Meanwhile, baseball is ready waiting in the on-deck circle.

    Pitchers, catchers and position players have arrived to their respective camps in Arizona and Florida by now. Spring training is always an exciting time of the year, a symbol of blossoming new growth where anything and anybody can get a fresh start to their baseball careers.

    No team exudes the essence of springtime more than the Oakland Athletics, a franchise that has almost completely re-harvested its roster over the past few months. Out with last year’s crop of All-Star pitchers Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey. In with fresh seeds like Jarrod Parker, Brad Peacock, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

    As the A’s cultivate their young, budding roster, there are many questions regarding the 2012 season. Which players will bear fruit? Which ones will wilt? Which produce will be re-sold?

    Let’s take a look at the Athletics roster as they approach spring training. Here we’ll analyze the team’s bullpen.

Grant Balfour

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    One of the lone bright spots out of the bullpen for the Oakland A’s last season was Grant Balfour. The right-hander posted a 2.47 ERA and 1.03 WHIP, to go with five wins and two saves—an all-around solid showing in his first season in Oakland.

    Though he did taper off a bit last year—5.40 ERA, three home runs in 8.1 innings in September—it is assumed that Balfour will be one of the contenders to become the team’s closer, after the departure of Andrew Bailey this past offseason.

    In his favor is his strikeout ability: He has a career mark of 9.92 strikeouts per nine innings. Last season, however, he served up a career-high eight home runs, and his walk ratio was higher than would be desired for a closer—especially one with an elongated delivery like Balfour has. He did blow five saves in 2011, most of them coming in earlier innings of tight ballgames.

    2012 outlook: Expect Balfour to land the closer role coming out of spring training. But with no clear-cut favorite as of now, it’s possible he could lose his spot at some point this season. However, manager Bob Melvin does not seem to be the type to flip-flop the way that his predecessor did so often.

Jerry Blevins

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    Jerry Blevins had sort of a down-and-up season in 2011: As in, he was sent down to Triple-A and called up to the big club several times last year. As a result, the lanky reliever appeared in only 26 games with Oakland but made 27 appearances with Triple-A Sacramento.

    The lefty specialist pitched terribly with the A’s: 2.86 ERA with a .235 opponents’ batting average and 8.26 strikeouts-per-nine-innings average. But for whatever reason, Oakland stood by veteran left-hander Craig Breslow during late innings, and ultimately it appeared the team had lost confidence in the 28-year-old Blevins.

    Breslow is now gone, shipped away last offseason. So Blevins is in line as one of the more experienced southpaw relievers in the Athletics’ bullpen. Look for him to secure a spot on the roster and remain in Oakland for the entire season—unless management decides to ship him off at the trading deadline.

    2012 outlook: Lefty set-up man, no more than a few outs—mostly in the sixth or seventh innings.

Andrew Carignan

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    A late-season call-up with the A’s in 2011, Andrew Carignan is fighting for a roster spot this spring training. The right-handed reliever made six September appearances last year, posting a 4.26 ERA in several non-competitive games.

    In 2011, Carignan split time at several minor league levels, reaching the Triple-A ballclub in Sacramento, where he posted a 2.16 ERA and .186 opponents’ batting average in 13 appearances. Solid numbers.

    This past offseason, however, Carignan regressed a bit in winter ball, logging a 6.57 ERA in 12.1 innings with the Phoenix Desert Dogs.

    Where he’ll be in 2012: The 25-year-old Carignan will, in all likelihood, end up clocking in with the Sacramento River Cats to start the season. Depending on injuries, he could find a couple call-ups to the big league A’s before season’s end.

Ryan Cook

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    Ryan Cook arrived in Oakland via the trade that sent Trevor Cahill to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The right-hander made 12 appearances last season, logging only 7.2 innings of work. He struggled mightily with his control (eight walks), which contributed to his 7.04 ERA and 2.48 WHIP—extremely lofty numbers in the wrong categories.

    Last year, Cook was converted to the bullpen, after spending the previous three seasons in the minors as a starting pitcher. He excelled as a reliever, cooking up a 2.21 ERA in 48 appearances at two levels in the minors. More impressive were the two measly home runs he gave up in 61 innings of work.

    Where he’ll be in 2012: Look for Cook to get some seasoning in Triple-A Sacramento. Like Carignan, Cook will be competing for a spot as a right-handed set-up man down the road.

Fautino De Los Santos

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    The flame-throwing Fautino De Los Santos is another candidate for the Athletics’ closer role. The right-handed stud has one of the best fastballs on the club, clocking in at an average of 95.8 miles per hour, according to ESPN.com.

    A prototypical fastball-slider pitcher, De Los Santos tallied a whopping 43 strikeouts in 33.1 innings last season with the A’s. Unfortunately, his predictability showed in his 4.32 ERA and 1.32 WHIP. He also needs to work on his command, as evidenced by his 17 bases on balls last year.

    De Los Santos is still relatively young, 26, so the Athletics might be honing him for the future. Right now, heading into spring training, he will likely have to wow the pitching staff if he wants to slide into that closer role come Opening Day. With the experience of veteran Grant Balfour, the A’s might start the season with De Los Santos as a set-up man. But all that is certainly up in the air.

    2012 outlook: De Los Santos should start the season coming out of the bullpen as one of the team’s right-handed specialists: against lefties. Left-handed hitters batted only .173 against him in 2011.

Joey Devine

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    The journey back to the majors for Joey Devine has been a long one. He has had several arm injuries over the past three seasons, highlighted by Tommy John surgery in 2009. Keeping him under close eye, he only made 26 big-league appearances in 2011, his first action in the majors since 2008.

    That said, it speaks to his character, determination, patience—and stuff—that Devine is a candidate for the team’s closer role. Though he is a long shot, those odds are right up Devine’s alley considering the path he’s taken the last few seasons to get back into the big leagues.

    In 2008, Devine was lights-out, logging a 0.59 ERA in 45.2 innings of work with Oakland. So it’s not exactly impossible to think that he could finish ballgames. It all depends on how strongly he has recovered and how confident he is in his pitching after the myriad of injuries he suffered. But if you believe in "Devine intervention," he certainly could be the closer come Opening Day.

    2012 outlook: Devine will serve primary as a right-handed specialist, as his numbers indicate that is his strength (right-handed hitters batted .163 against him last year.)

Brian Fuentes

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    What a whirlwind of a 2011 for Brian Fuentes. First he’s the closer pro tempore, then he’s the eighth-inning man, then he’s the closer de fact and then he’s just a lefty reliever. Oh, and in between he helps get manager Bob Geren fired. And that was all in the season’s first two months.

    This year there will hopefully be better communication with Fuentes about what his intended role will be for the 2012 campaign. That said, Fuentes is the leading candidate to become the A’s full-time closer heading into the season. If mostly because of his tremendous experience in that role, having 199 career saves under his belt.

    The 36-year-old has a sneaky fastball that unfortunately did not surprise many hitters last year. He posted a dismal 2-8 record and blew three saves in 15 opportunities, leading many to believe he won’t secure the closer role.

    2012 outlook: Eighth-inning set-up man. That’s what Fuentes will be unless he demonstrates a high-level of consistency during spring training. For a team that is young and inexperienced, having a consistent closer would do wonders for the ball club’s confidence—particularly the starters. That said, Fuentes would have to set spring training afire to become the full-time closer for the season.

Jordan Norberto

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    Not much to expect here: Jordon Norberto has some work to do. He came to Oakland in the 2011 midseason trade that sent Brad Ziegler to the Arizona Diamondbacks. In six games with the A’s, Noberto built a 8.10 ERA, raising his career mark to 6.41. Needless to say, Norberto will be ironing out his mechanics this spring training.

    However, during winter ball in the Dominican Winter League, Norberto worked as a starter; and manager Bob Melvin has indicated that if he does not make the A’s as a reliever, the lefty could be converted into a starter in the minors, according to Joe Stiglich of InsideBayArea.com.

    In all likelihood, though, Norberto will not make the club. He still is too green to see time in green and gold come Opening Day.

    Where he’ll be in 2012: Triple-A. If Melvin’s words are true, then Norberto will be working as a starter in Sacramento.

Neil Wagner

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    At 28 years old, Neil Wagner is itching for a permanent spot on a big league roster. The right-hander made six appearances last year with the A’s, posting a ballooned 7.20 ERA in five innings of work. Opponents happily trotted a .967 OPS against him in his short stint.

    That said, it’s unlikely that Wagner will make the big league roster coming out of spring training. He has a strong arm and throws a mean fastball, which translated to 87 strikeouts in 66.1 innings of work in the minors last year.

    Unfortunately, the A’s already have a flame-thrower in Fautino De Los Santos. So Wagner will likely end up waiting in the wings in the minors unless either De Los Santos or Joey Devine makes an appearance on the disabled list sometime soon.

    Where he’ll be in 2012: Triple-A Sacramento. Unless he overly impresses the pitching staff this spring, Wagner will have to wait his turn to make the ball club. But look for him to be one of the first relievers called up whenever Oakland does need to fill a roster spot in the bullpen.