Few things are scarier in terms of pitching injuries than seeing your two-time All-Star closer grab his pitching elbow following the release of a pitch.
This was the case on Monday with A's closer Andrew Bailey. Following the delivery of a pitch in his outing to the Cleveland Indians, Bailey jumped up grimacing and holding his right elbow. He was immediately led off the field by the A's head trainer.
As we saw earlier this spring with the Cardinals' Adam Wainwright, any injury to a pitcher's elbow can be devastating to his season, and even his career.
Bailey insists that the injury did not feel as serious as previous injuries he has sustained, including an elbow injury that led to Tommy John surgery while Bailey was still in college in 2005. There remains concern, however, about Andrew’s long-term durability and if nagging injuries will cost him more time throughout the season.
Bailey, who also had surgery on his right elbow this past fall to remove bone chips, was flown to see Dr. James Andrews in Alabama to determine the extent of his injury. The outcome was great news to the Athletics organization and fanbase. Bailey suffered a forearm strain with no swelling and no structural damage.
"Any time a pitcher comes out of a game like Andrew did, you hold your breath," said A's Vice President and General Manager Billy Beane. "While there is no timetable on his return, this is welcome news."
Normally the loss of an All-Star-caliber closer would be a devastating blow to a team with the financial restraints of the A's. However, thanks to the offseason signings of Grant Balfour and former Angel and four-time All-Star closer Brian Fuentes, the A’s could have carried on without missing a beat.
In addition to Fuentes and Balfour, the A's also have Brad Ziegler, Craig Breslow, Joey Devine and Michael Wuertz, who are all capable of closing out games.
The offseason emphasis on adding depth to the roster allows the A’s the luxury of being patient with Bailey not only as he recovers from this setback, but during the season if any discomfort should arise in that right elbow as well. The A’s have their fallback options they can quickly turn to in order to give Bailey a night off to recover.
Here’s a quick look at the A’s closer options if Bailey is unavailable at any point during the regular season (in presumed order they would be called upon to save games).
A four-time All-Star lefty closer with 187 career saves. Fuentes saved a career-high 48 games in 2009 while pitching for the rival Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Last season with the Angels and Twins, he saved 24 games. Fuentes is 35 years old; however, the Athletics believe in his durability enough to have rewarded him with a two-year contract this past offseason.
Balfour has been among the best and most reliable relievers in the American League over the past few seasons. Last season with the Rays Balfour went 2-1 with a 2.28 ERA in 57 appearances. While he only has eight career saves, Balfour definitely has the “stuff” and mindset to close out games.
Ziegler saved 11 out of 13 opportunities for the A’s in 2008 and seven out of 10 opportunities in 2009. Heading into spring training in 2009, Ziegler was expected to share the closer role with Joey Devine before Andrew Bailey’s eventual promotion that led to his Rookie of the Year campaign. Ziegler has been consistently reliable for Oakland and can be counted on if called upon to close for the Athletics this year.
Wuertz has been one of Oakland’s top setup men the past two seasons. He successfully closed out four of six opportunities in 2009 and all six opportunities he was given in 2010. The A’s would prefer to keep Wuertz in a setup role, which they should be afforded the luxury of with their added depth, but they are confident in his abilities if he's called upon in the ninth inning.
Devine is the other part of the tandem that was supposed to share the closer role in 2009 along with Brad Ziegler. Devine posted a 0.59 ERA for the A’s in 42 appearances before missing all of the past two seasons recovering from Tommy John surgery. Devine likely would not be ready to open the season in the closer’s role, but he could be called upon later in the season if he returns to his 2008 form, or even close to it.
Breslow is another lefty closer option. Similar to Michael Wuertz, the A’s would prefer to keep him in a setup role if possible. Breslow did save five out of seven opportunities last season, however.
Yeah, I just brought up the only pitcher on the Athletics’ roster more prone to injuries than Bailey. Harden may find it hard to even crack the Athletics roster this season due to his prolonged injury this spring and the depth the A’s added to both the rotation and bullpen.
If he does make the roster, though, it will be as a bullpen arm, and no one can argue that when healthy Harden is one of the most dominant arms in the majors. In a one-inning appearance Harden could shut down opposing lineups, making him an interesting addition to the A’s list of closer options.
Oakland was actually the team best equipped to handle the loss of a key member of its pitching staff. With no shortage of capable pitchers to handle the ninth inning, the A’s offseason plan of adding depth has already paid off for Beane and company.