The Oakland Athletics entered the 2009 season with some serious bullpen questions. After 27 games and an 11-16 record, some of those questions remain unanswered while injuries have taken the focus off of some solid developments in the Oakland bullpen.
Entering the season, Oakland manager Bob Geren had two legitimate options at closer. The submarining Brad Ziegler, who saved 11 games in 2008 after replacing Huston Street, held a tenuous hold on the position.
Ziegler was coming off a sparkling second half of 2008 in which he appeared in 28 games, notching 11 saves and two wins while maintaining a 1.62 ERA.
Ziegler's competition came from Joey Devine. Acquired from the Atlanta Braves after the 2007 season in the Tim Hudson trade, Devine was a former first round draft pick expected to be an elite closer at the Major League level.
But Devine struggled in two seasons with Atlanta and lost his closer-in-waiting status. During 2008, in the reduced-pressure role of a set up man, Devine flashed his potentially dominating stuff. While striking out 49 batters in 45 innings, Devine posted a 0.59 ERA and went the entire months of August and September without giving up a run.
But the closer competition was cut short. On April 4, the A's placed Devine on the disabled list and he underwent ligament-replacement surgery, ending his 2009 campaign. Ziegler became the team's closer.
Thus far in 2009, three pitchers have recorded saves for the Athletics. Ziegler leads the team with four, Michael Wurtz has two and rookie Andrew Bailey recorded his first career save on May 8, while Ziegler was sidelined with the flu.
Despite only seven total saves, the A's lead the majors with a 2.75 ERA after the seventh inning and are second with a 1.23 WHIP.
Santiago Casilla entered the season as a primary set up man but has been on the disabled list since late April with a knee sprain. Starting pitching prospects Sean Gallagher, Gio Gonzalez, and Jerry Blevins have all filled in out of the bullpen. Journeymen Russ Springer & Michael Wuertz were signed to provide a veteran presence and have been solid.
Perhaps the best story of the 2009 Oakland bullpen has been the rookie, Bailey. A sixth round draft pick in 2006, Bailey, 25, has been nearly unhittable in his relief role.
Through 21 innings thus far in 2009, Bailey has given up just seven hits and three runs while posting a glittering 24:7 strikeout to walk ratio and a 1.27 ERA. Opponents have hit just .087 against him in 2009 and his 0.61 WHIP is fifth amongst all pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched.
The return of Casilla in mid-May will provide a boost to a rapidly improving bullpen. Combined with Bailey's emergence, it will allow Gallagher to return to the starting rotation and Gonzalez to return to the minors where he continues to progress down the path of a top-of-the-rotation starter.
A major issue that needs to be addressed is the lack of left handed relievers out the bullpen for Oakland.
In 2008, lefties Alan Embree, Keith Foulke, and Blevins threw 130.1 innings in 137 appearances. Embree and Foulke are gone and Blevins has been less than impressive in 3 appearances thus far in 2009.
Lefty Josh Outman has thrown a couple of innings in relief and Gio Gonzalez had a five inning relief appearance on May 3.
But Outman has moved into the starting rotation and Gonzalez, the centerpiece of the Nick Swisher trade with the Chicago White Sox last season, is one of Oakland's brightest starting rotation prospects.
Oakland's ability to develop (or acquire) another left handed option out of the bullpen will directly impact their ability to contend in a wide-open American League West.
Overall, with a healthy Casilla, Springer, and Wuertz, along with the emergence of Bailey as a standout reliever, bridging the gap to Ziegler in the ninth inning, Oakland should have a solid bullpen.
Their success is critical to an Athletics team with a young, inexperienced starting rotation (albeit brimming with talent).
This is a situation many A's fans will remember in the early 2000's, when veterans like Jason Isringhausen, Foulke, Chad Bradford, Billy Koch, and Rincardo Rincon provided lights-out relief for a group of young pitchers named Zito, Mulder, Hudson, Harden, and Harang.
Brad Zielger (CL) RHP
10 App, 11.2 IP, 4 Saves, 10 K, 4 BB, 3.09 ERA, 1.54 WHIP
Andrew Bailey RHP
15 App, 21.1 IP, 3 Wins, 1 Save, 21 K, 7 BB, 1.27 ERA, 0.61 WHIP
Russ Springer RHP
15 App, 14 IP, 1 Loss, 16 K, 6 BB, 2.57 ERA, 1.57 WHIP
Michael Wuertz RHP
15 App, 16.2 IP, 2 Wins, 1 Loss, 2 Saves, 14 K, 2 BB, 1.62 ERA, 0.72 WHIP
Jerry Blevins LHP
3 App, 1.1 IP, 3 BB, 27.00 ERA, 3.75 WHIP
Kevin Cameron RHP
3 App, 5 IP, 4 K, 1 BB, 1.80 ERA, 1.20 WHIP
Santiago Casilla (DL) RHP
9 App, 11.1 IP, 1 Loss, 7 K, 6 BB, 1.59 ERA, 0.79 WHIP