The headline never reads “Pitcher to visit Dr. Andrews for scones, afternoon tea.” No, it’s always “Pitcher to visit Dr. Andrews to discover what the heck is going on inside his elbow.” Or something in that vein. The latest victim booking a ticket to Birmingham is Andrew Bailey…again. And while Bailey may never be the same if he needs a second Tommy John surgery (though that piece is a bit dated, and Bailey does have youth on his side), the more immediate concern for the A’s is how their bullpen shakes out in the aftermath of his latest misfortune. While Bailey is among the game’s better closers, the A’s spent the winter preparing for such a scenario, and are equipped to handle his loss, as they have at least five pitchers capable of handling closer duties.
While not a closer 100 percent of the time in recent years, Brian Fuentes has managed to pile up 20 or more saves in each of the last six seasons, and in a manner unlike most. Of all relievers with at least 200 innings pitched since 2007, only two pitchers – Rafael Betancourt and Rafael Soriano – produced fewer ground balls than did Fuentes. Like Soriano and Betancourt, however, the lack of ground balls, in the aggregate, has not been a big issue for Fuentes, as his HR/FB% ranks among the best. This should be even less of a concern in Oakland’s home run dampening environment. Still, the right manager can manipulate Fuentes. In the past two seasons, his FIP’s vs. right-handed batters – 5.26 in ’09 and 4.70 in ’10 – are hardly closer-worthy. Fuentes seems to know this, and frequently pitches around righties, which leads me to believe that a job-share arrangement could be in the works, if not voluntarily, then certainly out of necessity. One of the men who likely would figure prominently in this equation would be Grant Balfour.
To look at them, no one would ever accuse of Fuentes and Balfour of being alike – one is a laid-back Californian, the other at times a highly-strung Aussie. But looking at their statistical profile, similarities emerge. Each throws his fastball roughly 70 percent of the time, and his slider more than 10 percent of the time. Despite the fact that each walks more than their fair share of batters, they both have WHIPs in the 1.2 range. Finally, they have near identical career batted ball rates: 21.5% LD – 33.5% GB – 45.0% FB for Fuentes vs. 21.2%-33.7%-45.1% for Balfour. Balfour’s platoon splits are not as pronounced against lefties as Fuentes’ are against righties, and Balfour’s last couple of seasons were certainly better than Fuentes’, but if manager Bob Geren chooses to play matchups with the veteran duo, he could create a formidable two-headed monster.
Aside from the two imports, the A’s also have a couple of candidates who tallied saves during Bailey’s absences last season in Michael Wuertz and Craig Breslow. Both have been dinged up in Spring Training, though the recurrence of Wuertz’s shoulder problems from last season loom a bit more ominously. In limited duty last season because of the shoulder problem, Wuertz picked up six saves, but failed to duplicate the fantastic numbers he produced in 2009, particularly with regards to his walk rate. Part of that is likely the small sample size, and part of it could well be injury related, but since I am not a doctor nor do I pretend to be one on TV, I won’t speculate on that. When healthy, the pair represents a poor man’s version of the Fuentes-Balfour duo. Though Wuertz gives up fewer fly balls than does Balfour and Fuentes, more of them seem to find the cheap seats. With Breslow, it’s more a matter of preference. He gives up fewer hard-hit balls – especially last season when his line drive rate was a career best 14.6% – but he doesn’t punch out batters at the same rate that Balfour, Fuentes or Wuertz does.
Finally, there’s Devine. Back in 2008, Devine’s 1.97 FIP was the best in baseball among relievers who threw at least 40 innings. The 40 innings, however, is key. Devine missed more than two months that season with elbow inflammation, and hasn’t pitched in the Majors since undergoing Tommy John surgery in April of 2009. The A’s have held on to him the whole time though, because of what he showed in ’08. Hitters had a difficult time making contact with Devine’s fastball-slider mix, and when they did, the ball didn’t necessarily go far. In 52 appearances across 2007 and 2008, Devine never allowed a home run. Devine is still working his way back into the mix in terms of both health and feel, but he is represents a wild card in the A’s bullpen mix.
The A’s have been hit hard by injuries before. As a result, they have deliberately stocked their 2011 bullpen. In Balfour and Fuentes, they have a left-right combo that could dominate the ninth inning, and they even have a backup left-right team in Breslow and Wuertz, plus Devine. All of this, and we still haven’t touched on ground-ball specialist Brad Ziegler or injury-specialist Rich Harden, who could also find themselves as options if things break right (no pun intended). So even if Bailey is unavailable at the start of the regular season or even longer, the A’s will have plenty of ammunition with which to mount their attack to reclaim the AL West.
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