A's Deep, Dominant Bullpen Makes Quick Jim Johnson Hook a No-Brainer

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistApril 10, 2014

Oakland Athletics pitcher Jim Johnson (45) is relieved by manager Bob Melvin, rear, during the ninth inning of a baseball game against the Cleveland Indians in Oakland, Calif., Wednesday, April 2, 2014. The Indians won 6-4. Johnson was the losing pitcher. In front is Athletics catcher Derek Norris. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu

Just eight games into the new season, the Oakland Athletics have already seen enough of the struggling Jim Johnson in the closer's role.

The final straw came on Wednesday vs. the Twins, when Johnson entered the game in the ninth with a 4-2 lead and allowed two hits, two walks and two runs to cough up the lead.

That led to the news today that Johnson had been removed from the ninth-inning role, with Susan Slusser of the San Francisco Chronicle among those to report the move.

In five appearances this season, Johnson has two losses and a blown save, as he has allowed nine hits and seven earned runs in just 3.1 innings of work and given up at least one run in three of his five outings.

Jim Johnson's 2014 Game Log
Date (Opponent)IPERHBBK
Mar. 31 (CLE)0.12210
Apr. 2 (CLE)0.23320
Apr. 5 (SEA)1.00102
Apr. 6 (SEA)1.00112
Apr. 9 (MIN)0.12220
Baseball Reference

The Baltimore Orioles opted to cut ties with Johnson prior to the non-tender deadline rather than pay him big money in his final year of arbitration, following a season in which he saved at least 50 games for the second straight year, but also blew an MLB-high nine saves and saw his ERA climb nearly a half run.

The A's signed him on a one-year, $10 million deal shortly after acquiring him. That made him the second-highest paid player on the Oakland roster this year, trailing only Yoenis Cespedes and his $10.5 million salary.

To put it another way, the $10 million Johnson is making this season accounts for a little over 12 percent of the team's $81.4 million payroll in 2014.

Orlin Wagner

The deal came after the A's opted not to re-sign All-Star closer Grant Balfour, who was seeking a multiyear deal in free agency. He wound up agreeing to a two-year, $12 million deal with the Tampa Bay Rays, making him a cheaper alternative to Johnson, if you're scoring at home.

While Johnson has struggled, Balfour is 2-for-2 on save chances to begin the season, allowing just one hit and one walk in three scoreless innings of work.

Even sans Balfour, though, the Athletics bullpen looked strong, and it was shocking to see them shell out so much money on a closer given the group they had in-house.

The bullpen posted a 3.22 ERA as a group last season, good for third in the AL and sixth in all of baseball, and there was no shortage of electric arms returning even after the team lost Balfour, Pat Neshek and Jerry Blevins in the offseason.

Oakland Athletics Opening Day Bullpen (2013 Stats)
Name (*Opened Season on DL)2013 Stats
LHP Drew Pomeranz8 GS, 4 G, 0-4, 6.23 ERA, 19 BB, 19 K, 21.2 IP
RHP Evan Scribner18 G, 0-0, 0 SV, 4.39 ERA, 7 BB, 19 K, 26.2 IP
LHP Fernando Abad39 G, 0-3, 0 SV, 3.35 ERA, 10 BB, 32 K, 37.2 IP
RHP Danny Otero33 G, 2-0, 0 SV, 1.38 ERA, 6 BB, 27 K, 39 IP
LHP Sean Doolittle70 G, 5-5, 2 SV, 3.13 ERA, 13 BB, 60 K, 69 IP
RHP Luke Gregerson73 G, 6-8, 4 SV, 2.71 ERA, 18 BB, 64 K, 66.1 IP
*RHP Ryan Cook71 G, 6-4, 2 SV, 2.54 ERA, 25 BB, 67 K, 67.1 IP
Baseball Reference

A strong case can be made for Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle being the best setup duo in baseball last season, and both have been among the best in the business since the start of the 2012 season.

Acquired from the Diamondbacks in the Trevor Cahill deal, Cook ended up closing in 2012 when Balfour struggled early, saving 14 games with a 2.09 ERA to earn a trip to the All-Star Game.

Doolittle, a converted first baseman who didn't start pitching until 2011, has a terrific fastball/slider combination and has quickly become one of the better left-handed relievers in the game.

Luke Gregerson
Luke GregersonUSA TODAY Sports

Many expected one of those two to take the job after it became clear the team was not going to re-sign Balfour and that there certainly would have been significantly cheaper options.

Then there is Luke Gregerson, who was acquired from the San Diego Padres for outfielder Seth Smith this offseason.

The 29-year-old broke into the league with a terrific rookie campaign in 2009, and since the start of that season, he ranks first in appearances (363), fifth in innings pitched (347) and seventh in strikeouts (352) among relievers.

Those three gave the A's perhaps the best setup trio in baseball entering the year, and they will be asked to assume the role of closer-by-committee.

It would not be shocking to see the team go back to Johnson at some point, and it seems like he's taken the decision in stride.

"(Manager Bob Melvin) has to do what he has to do, I just gotta keep working, nothing else I can do," Johnson told Jane Lee of MLB.com. "I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. The ball’s not going where I want it to go consistently. Try to get it sorted out, try to get locked in … I wish I had an answer.”

For what it's worth, the A's yanked Grant Balfour from the closer job when he struggled early in the 2012 season. He returned to the ninth-inning role in the middle of August and went on to rattle off 17 straight saves down the stretch with a 2.08 ERA.

That wound up being the start of what would be franchise-record 44 straight saves converted for Balfour, so there's still hope for Johnson yet in Oakland.

That being said, given the talent that they have around Johnson at the back end of the bullpen, this was a no-brainer move for manager Bob Melvin at this point.


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