Springtime Storylines: Should Athletics' fans be freaking out about the bullpen yet?

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Between now and Opening Day, HBT will take a look at each of the 30
teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally
breaking down their chances for the 2010 season.  Next up: The San Jose Athletics (forgive me; just tryin’ it out)


The
big question: Should Athletics’ fans be freaking out about the bullpen yet?

Maybe a full-blown freakout is premature, but you can commence nervous twitching, that’s for sure.  The A’s pen was clearly the strength of the team last year, leading the AL with a 3.46 ERA. Going into the spring it looked to be returning intact plus adding Joey Devine who will soon be coming back from Tommy John
surgery.

But then the injuries began happening: Devine had a setback that’s going to keep him from coming north with the team at the end of the week. Craig Breslow, Mike Wuertz and Andrew Bailey have all been injured in the early going too. Bailey and Breslow came up with bum elbows they’re testing out today and Wuertz has a sore shoulder that is still not improving and may keep him from Opening Day.  No one expected the A’s bullpen to have another season as good as last year’s — they were pretty stellar after all — but they’d probably rather have slightly less effective versions of last year’s bullpen cast than to have to trade for and sign Yankees’ castoffs Edwar Ramirez and Chad Gaudin, respectively.

Normally this wouldn’t be a tremendous cause for concern as even winning teams see a lot of bullpen changeover from year to year. But the Athletics are far more dependent on their pen and have enough questions elsewhere — see below — that if the bullpen is a source of trouble instead of a strength, Oakland’s slim chances of contending more or less evaporate.

So what else is going on?

  • There have been a handful of stories this spring about the return of small ball.  Given that there remains a much stronger correlation between homers and scoring and, well, whatever small ball is and scoring, these stories are overstated.  But if anyone truly is going to live or die by small ball, it will be the A’s. Their offense took off in the second half last season, mostly on the power of stealing and bunting and hitting and running and that kind of thing. If they’re going to score runs in sufficient quantities this year, it will be via the same methods, because there really isn’t any power on this club.
  • Justin Duchscherer and Ben Sheets are high risk, high reward guys on the front end of the rotation, but there are a lot of young arms on this team, many of them with considerable upside. Brett Anderson is one, and he’s joined by Dallas Braden, Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Vin Mazzaro and Josh Outman. All of them have flashed quality and all of them have been horrifying, but that’s young pitching for you. Ultimately the A’s rotation strategy is going to be the same as an insect’s reproductive strategy: throw out a ton of youngins and hope enough of them survive to keep things moving along.

  • Eric Chavez is healthy for the first time in years and years and is going to be a utility guy. Now that no one expects anything out of him anymore he’ll probably hit 25 homers or something.
  • The whole San Jose thing is presumably going to be resolved sometime this year. If I had to guess it will be resolved in the form of that special committee Bud Selig put together releasing a report that says Oakland is no longer a viable home for the the team, followed by a big payoff to the Giants to allow the team to move to San Jose. When that happens, the last six people in the city of Oakland who actually care about the A’s will abandon the team. If a baseball game happens at the Coliseum and there’s no one there to see it, does it count in the standings?

So how
are they gonna do?

I think that if Sheets and Duchscherer are healthy and effective, two of the young arms take a big leap forward (do arms leap?), and the bullpen’s health scares turn out to be a lot of nothing this could be a downright frisky team. The odds of all of those things happening aren’t stellar, however, and I don’t place enough faith in the Athlectics’ offense to be able to cover for any pitching problems.

Prediction:Fourth place, AL West. But if it’s any consolation, I think the Athletics will be the best last place team in baseball.

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Yordano Ventura represented the best and worst of baseball’s culture

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images
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It was reported this morning that Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura was killed in a car accident in the Dominican Republic. Former prospect Andy Marte was also killed in a separate car accident. Along with Jose Fernandez and Oscar Taveras, the baseball world has lost a lot of young, exciting talent in a very short amount of time.

Ventura was, like all of us, a complex human being. At his best, he was an exciting, talented, emotive pitcher who featured an electric fastball which sat in the mid-90’s and occasionally touched 100 MPH. At his worst, he was an immature, impressionable kid trying to fit in by exacting revenge against batters he felt had wronged him by slinging those electric fastballs at vulnerable areas of their bodies.

Baseball needed Ventura when he was at his best. It is players like him and Fernandez, not Mike Trout, that bring in new fans to the sport. To baseball die-hards, Angels outfielder Mike Trout is the pinnacle of entertainment because we know he’s an otherworldly talent. But to the average fan, Trout is just another player who hits a couple of homers and doesn’t do anything particularly interesting otherwise. Trout is milquetoast. Ventura was never an All-Star, but fans knew who he was because he made his presence felt every time he made a start. He was fun, if sometimes vengeful.

Ventura’s baseball rap sheet is rather lengthy for someone who only pitched parts of four seasons in the big leagues. Early in the 2015 season, Ventura found himself in a handful of benches-clearing incidents in quick succession. On April 12, he jawed with Trout, apparently misunderstanding the motivation behind Trout yelling, “Let’s go!” Though catcher Salvador Perez intervened, Trout’s teammate Albert Pujols ran in from second base and the benches cleared shortly thereafter. On the 18th, some drama between the Athletics and Royals continued. Ventura fired a 99 MPH fastball at Brett Lawrie, resulting in his immediate ejection from the game. More beanball wars ensued in the series finale the following day. Finally, on the 23rd, Ventura hit White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu with a 99 MPH fastball in the fourth inning. Ventura was not ejected… until after the completion of the seventh inning. Walking back to the dugout, Ventura barked at White Sox outfielder Adam Eaton and — you guessed it — the benches cleared. All told, Ventura was fined for his behavior with the Athletics and suspended seven games for the White Sox incident.

In August 2015, Ventura called Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista a “nobody” and accused him of stealing signs. He apologized shortly thereafter. Two months later, during his start in Game 6 of the ALCS against the Blue Jays, Ventura got into it with Jays first base coach Tim Leiper. Nothing happened beyond that, but apparently it was part of the Jays’ plan to try to put Ventura “on tilt.”

Most recently, in June this past season, Ventura hit Orioles third baseman Manny Machado with a pitch. Machado charged the mound and got in at least one punch before the players spilled out onto the field in a blob of royal blue and orange. Ventura was suspended for eight games.

Ventura was by no means a model of civility, but he was a product of baseball’s intransigent culture forcing players to assimilate or be ostracized. The old culture taught players to never show emotion. Hit a home run? Put your head down and circle the bases in a timely fashion or risk taking a fastball to the ribs. Players like Fernandez and Bautista — typically players from Latin countries — challenged those old cultural norms and are, as a result, the vanguard of the new culture. Ventura displayed aspects of each, the worst of the old culture and the best of the new. He was not a one-dimensional person; he was strikingly complex. At one moment willing to use a fastball as a weapon, the next stopping by some kids’ lemonade stand and giving out fist bumps. Baseball is made more entertaining and more interesting by its personalities and Ventura’s was a behemoth, for better or worse. His absence from the sport will be felt.

MLB remembers Yordano Ventura and Andy Marte

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 28:  Yordano Ventura #30 of the Kansas City Royals delivers in the first inning during a game against the Boston Red Sox on August 28, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
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Following the tragic passing of 25-year-old Yordano Ventura and 33-year-old Andy Marte, both of whom were killed in separate car crashes on Sunday morning, players and executives from around Major League Baseball expressed an outpouring of grief and support for the players’ families and former teams.

Fans have gathered at Kauffman Stadium in memory of the former pitcher.