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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The Nationals sign Kevin Jepsen

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Chris Cotillo of SB Nation reports the Nationals have agreed to terms with free agent reliever Kevin Jepsen.

Think of this as the latest in what will likely be a series of no-risk bullpen additions. The Nats, basically, collecting as many almost free arms they can find in an effort to fix their bullpen woes without having to give up anything valuable at the trade deadline. Just like the K-Rod signing earlier this week or the Edwin Jackson signing two weeks ago.

Jepsen pitched for Tampa Bay and Minnesota last year, posting a 5.68 ERA with the Rays and a 6.16 ERA with the Twins, appearing in 58 games in all. He went unsigned this past offseason.

Eh, it might work. It probably won’t, but it might.

Rival Executives Expect Justin Verlander To Hit The Trading Block

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About a month ago, a report circulated that if the Detroit Tigers weren’t above .500 by the end of June, they were going to chuck the season, look to trade off veterans and rebuild. It’s now June 29 and the Tigers are 34-42 and sit six games out of first place.

As such, we should not be too terribly surprised to see a report from Jeff Passan of Yahoo that multiple baseball executives expect Tigers ace Justin Verlander to hit the trade market sometime in the next two weeks. Passan notes that the Tigers haven’t formally offered him and that he’s just passing along speculation from rivals, but it’s pretty astute speculation.

The question is what the Tigers can get for Verlander. On the one hand, yes, Verlander is Verlander and has been one of the top starters in baseball for a decade. While he had struggled for a bit, last year featured a return to Cy Young form. He still has a blazing fastball and there is no reason to think he could not anchor the staff of a playoff caliber team.

On the other hand, as Passan notes, his 2017 has been . . . not so good. He looks amazing at times and very hittable at other times. Overall his walk rate is way up and his strikeout rate is down. There doesn’t appear to be anything physically wrong with him — various ailments contributed to his 2014-15 swoon — so it’s possible he’s just had a rough couple of months. Like I said, Verlander is Verlander, and it may not be a bad gamble to expect him to run off a string of dominant starts like he has so many times in the past.

The problem, though, is that anyone acquiring Verlander is not just gambling on a handful of starts down the stretch. They’re gambling on the $56 million he’s owed between 2018 and 2019 and the $22 million extra he’ll be guaranteed for 2020 if he finishes in the top five in Cy Young voting in 2019. Those would be his age 35, 36 and 37 seasons. There are certainly worse gambles in baseball, but it’s a gamble all the same.

If the Tigers don’t find any gamblers out there on the market, they’re going to have to make a gamble of their own: let Verlander go and get relatively little in return if another club picks up that $56 million commitment or eat it themselves and get prospects back in return to help kickstart a rebuild. Personally I’d go with the latter option, but I don’t work for the Illitch family.