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Athletics Bullpen: Depth Chart Discussions

Oakland’s bullpen should be largely unchanged from 2012 save for the addition of a couple pieces in the middle relief department. Their late inning relievers have impressive peripherals and should serve again as a core strength as they look to repeat as American League West champions. They also seem likely to be a nice collection of guys for rate-hungry owners since their home park should help keep their HR/FB% suppressed and their ERAs slightly lower than their park-regressed xFIPs.

The closer:
Grant Balfour

Balfour had an up-and-down 2012. He opened the season as closer, but eventually lost the gig in early May. All was not lost for Balfour owners who stashed, however, and he reclaimed the role in August and didn’t look back, holding opponents to a .125/.200/.167 triple-slash down the stretch. He’s now 35, but still had a firm grasp on a mid-20’s K% last year and should remain effective in ninth inning. His age and contract does make him a trade candidate for a team that has traditionally moved closers (such as Andrew Bailey) near the apex of their value, so owners should keep an eye on that come June and July.

Unfortunately for the present, Balfour had to undergo minor knee surgery a couple weeks ago which has dealt a minor blow to pre-season preparation. He’s already up and about, however, and felt “great” (slightly different than “grrrrrreat,” I presume) after playing catch earlier this week. Barring setbacks, he would seem to still have a good shot to be ready for Opening Day if his original 4-6 week timetable is to be believed. As long as he is back early, the odds of him getting Wally Pipp’d seem slight, but he’ll have to keep a close eye on the next two guys in line.

The setup guys:
Ryan Cook
Sean Doolittle (L)

Cook is the lead candidate to close should Balfour either remain injured and/or eventually become ineffective. He got a taste of the ninth inning in 2012 and pitched well until running into some speed bumps in August, letting Balfour sneak back into the picture. Cook didn’t pitch quite as well as his 2.09 ERA would lead you to believe, however. His absurdly low .220 BABIP points to a high degree of luck which manifested itself in his 3.48 xFIP. One big red flag for Cook early on during his closing tenure was his control, although his second-half BB% (4.3%) was a massive improvmenet over his first-half mark of 14.1%. Swing-and-miss stuff has never been a problem for Cook, and if he can keep the BB% under 10% going forward, he’ll very likely get another shot to close at some point in 2013. If Balfour’s knee injury lingers into April, it wouldn’t be shocking if Cook was able to put together a lights out first few weeks and steal the job.

Doolittle was Cook’s opposite last year, putting up a good ERA in the first half (2.45) but with peripherals painting the picture of a pitcher still getting “unlucky” compared to his rates (1.64 xFIP). The trend flip-flopped in the second-half, leading to his ERA (3.04) just about matching his xFIP (3.02) when the dust settled. The converted first baseman sports a mid-90’s heater and reverse splits (.341/.224 wOBA versus LHB/RHB), so the fact that he is a southpaw is of little importance to his deployment. While he possesses the stuff to close, he’s likely behind Cook in addition to Balfour so he’s tough to recommend as a speculative saves play on draft day. That said, with a 12.5% SwStr% and a 5.8 BB%, there is plenty he can do to help roto owners with their rate stats.

Middle relief:
Fernando Rodriguez
Jordan Norberto (L)
Jerry Blevins (L)
Pat Neshek
Chris Resop
Hideki Okajima (L)

Rodriguez came over as an ancillary piece in the Jed Lowrie trade. He has a live arm, as highlighted by his career 25% K%, but he’s also pretty wild (12.1% BB%) which is why his career ERA is closer to 5.00 than 4.00. He trended upward velocity-wise last year, which is a good sign, and he could pick up more high-leverage work if he can shave the free pass total a bit. Norberto is probably best known for having one of baseball’s best beards, but his 2.77 ERA in 2012 was pretty solid, too. Unfortunately for him, the rest of the underlying stats weren’t as rosy, and his 4.32 xFIP would put him closer to middle-relief territory than any close and late situations. He’s also coming back from a shoulder injury and has had his name surface in the Biogenesis scandal; both factors could drive him down or out of the A’s plans.

Blevins is the closest thing to Oakland’s LOOGY. Like the rest of his sub-90 mph lefty brethren, not a whole lot of fantasy upside here, although he was used in a couple high-leverage situations last year when multiple lefties were scheduled to hit. At the major-league level, the sidearming Neshek just hasn’t been the same since his Tommy John surgery in 2008. Once considered one of the better young relievers in baseball, Neshek’s three-year xFIP trend (albeit in limit innings) of 5.71, 5.93, 4.48 doesn’t instill a ton of confidence. Continued decline in velocity is also a concern and while he posted a 1.37 ERA last year and is one of the more likable players in baseball, there’s a shot he loses his job at some point this season.

Resop came over from the Pirates in the offseason and should end up serving as Oakland’s long reliever. He’s only a single season removed from back-to-back seasons with near-3.50 xFIPs and should be a useful piece during his age-28 season, even without the few ticks off the fastball that have evaporated the last two years. Okajima returns to the Major League scene after spending a year overseas. Now 37, he posted an impressive 0.94 ERA and 36/6 K/BB ratio over 47.2 innings last season for the Japanese Fukuoka Softbank Hawks — actually going his first 46 appearances without allowing a run. Okajima doesn’t have anything new to add that he hasn’t shown before, but assuming he still throws in the mid-80’s, his career 4.15 xFIP implies he should be able to remain adequate as a middle reliever.

Looking up the totem pole:
Jesse Chavez
Pedro Figueroa (L)
Evan Scribner

Chavez actually put up a decent xFIP last season (3.97), but his 9.85 ERA was ugly. Although the rates say he’s not quite as bad as his career 5.99 ERA, Chavez is unlikely to break camp with Oakland. Both Figueroa and Scribner bounced back and forth between the majors and AAA last year when fresh arms were needed and seem destined to fill similar roles this year.