MLB Hot Stove: Oakland Athletics Quietly Building Dominant Bullpen
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Nobody is talking about Billy Beane anymore.
Moneyball hit its talking peak five years ago—the last time the Oakland Athletics managed to make the playoffs, in 2006, after winning the AL West with a 93-69 mark.
Their record dropped to 76-86 in 2007 but held steady at 75-86 and 75-87 in the next two years. In 2010, the A's returned to .500 after finishing 81-81, nine games behind the eventual World Series runner-up Texas Rangers.
Their consistency and moderate progression in wins masks Oakland's transition from a middling club filled with stopgap starters and power-hitting health risks on one-year deals to a franchise with reason to be excited about its future, after its spoils of struggle (and free agency departure) have finally begun to show.
Brett Anderson (22), Trevor Cahill (22), and Gio Gonzalez (25) are a trio of young starting pitchers who have reminded A's fans of the Hudson-Zito-Mulder combination from the early part of last decade in more ways than just their handedness (oddly, two left-handers and one right-hander, with Cahill and Hudson being southpaws).
Cliff Pennington and Daric Barton are good young defenders who both hit just enough to keep themselves in the lineup. Kurt Suzuki is now an experienced and solid starting catcher going into his fifth year, who looks poised to improve his power (if you don't believe me, watch the video on the right).
Additionally, Hideki Matsui and Josh Willingham were acquired via free agency and trade to boost the power of the third-weakest offense in baseball last year (.122 isolated power, in front of only Houston, .115, and Seattle, .104).
Billy Beane also traded for David Dejesus of the Royals, who should play stellar defense in right field, and combine for a pest-like one-two on-base combination with center fielder Coco Crisp at the top of the lineup.
With the No. 4 and No. 5 slots in the rotation filled by some (likely productive, and advantageous) combination of Dallas Braden, Rich Harden and Josh Outman, Beane's next logical focus was the bullpen, a unit that finished 22nd in the league in 2010 in Fielding Independent ERA (4.19) after finishing first in the same category a year earlier (3.35).
If the A's plan to return their bullpen to elite status, their blueprints will require the health of closer Andrew Bailey, who has a 133:37 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 132.1 MLB innings, but is coming off of elbow surgery during the offseason.
The next in line behind Bailey is likely Brian Fuentes, the former Angel who was signed this offseason as insurance (or surplus in the event Bailey is full-go). Fuentes has lost effectiveness the past few seasons, but along with the very underrated Jerry Blevins, the Athletics bullpen should be death to left-handed hitters in the late innings.
Grant Balfour, the hard-throwing Australian with the ironic last name who was yet another of the Rays' offseason losses, will combine with Michael Wuertz and his nasty slider as the primary setup men from the right side.
Both are strikeout pitchers, and Balfour might be the best setup man in Oakland since Chad Bradford. Wuertz's peripherals declined towards the end of last year, but if he rebounds, he would make for a ridiculously good fifth man out of the gate.
Brad Ziegler, while unspectacular, is a more than serviceable middle reliever with his ability to churn out groundballs and keep crooked numbers off the board. Joey Devine, the former first-round pick out of NC State, is also an intriguing name. Devine is in his second year of recovery from Tommy John surgery. If he is able to return to full strength, he has closer potential, and the minor league numbers to back it up.
This collection of arms is among the most talented I have ever seen in one bullpen before the start of a season.
Combined with an above-average rotation that may soon be among the best in baseball, and a lineup capable of playing defense and hitting just enough to let their pitching win, the 2011 Oakland Athletics are the bizarro Texas Rangers. With loads of young pitching, there's a lot to be excited about in Oakland, for both this year and the future.
Nobody is talking about Billy Beane anymore. But they will be soon.
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