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)

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

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.

here for other Springtime Storylines

Tigers in discussions with Jordan Zimmermann

Jordan Zimmermann
AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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Jon Morosi of FOX Sports reports that the Tigers are in discussions with free agent starter Jordan Zimmermann. His sources have told him that the talks have become “serious”.

Zimmermann, 29, has a career 3.32 ERA across parts of seven seasons in the majors. He finished fifth in National League Cy Young Award balloting in 2014, finishing with a 2.66 ERA and a 182/29 K/BB ratio over 199 2/3 innings.

Among starters who have amassed at least 1,000 innings since 2009, only Cliff Lee, Dan Haren, Madison Bumgarner, and Zack Greinke have compiled a better strikeout-to-walk ratio than Zimmermann’s 4.09. While he doesn’t have the star power of other free agents such as Greinke or David Price, the Tigers would certainly improve their rotation by bringing him on board.

Blue Jays still focused on upgrading their pitching

Marco Estrada
AP Photo/LM Otero

Having already added Jesse Chavez and J.A. Happ to the mix and re-signing Marco Estrada early in the offseason, Blue Jays interim GM Tony LaCava said the team will continue to pursue pitching upgrades, as Sportsnet’s Ben Nicholson-Smith reports. Nicholson-Smith added that LaCava declined to comment on free agent ace David Price. It is believed that the Jays will not pursue Price and other big-name free agent starting pitchers given their November activity.

The Jays re-signed Estrada to a two-year, $26 million deal on November 13, acquired Chavez from the Athletics in exchange for reliever Liam Hendriks on November 20 and signed Happ to a three-year, $36 million deal on Friday.

Nicholson-Smith notes in a column on Sportsnet that the Jays need to address the bullpen in particular. That is especially true after swapping Hendriks, who had a career-best 2.92 ERA out of the Jays’ bullpen in 2015, for a back-end starting pitcher.

Report: Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”

Jonathan Papelbon
AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin

Jon Heyman of CBS Sports spoke to an anonymous baseball executive, who said that Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon is “untradeable”. The Nationals are hoping to trade both Papelbon and the man he displaced, Drew Storen.

Papelbon has a poor reputation in baseball, particularly after a dugout altercation with superstar outfielder Bryce Harper. Focusing strictly on what he does on the field, Papelbon still gets the job done. The 35-year-old finished the last season with a combined 2.13 ERA, 24 saves, and a 56/12 K/BB ratio over 63 1/3 innings between the Phillies and Nationals.

The Nationals owe Papelbon $11 million for the 2016 season.

Minor league home run king Mike Hessman retires

NEW YORK - JULY 29:  Mike Hessman #19 of the New York Mets bats against the St. Louis Cardinals on July 29, 2010 at Citi Field in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. The Mets defeated the Cardinals 4-0.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Baseball America’s J.J. Cooper reports that corner infielder Mike Hessman has retired from professional baseball after 20 seasons. Hessman hit 433 home runs in the minor leagues, an all-time record. He broke Buzz Arlett’s record this past August and with style as #433 was a grand slam.

Hessman, 37, was selected in the 16th round of the 1996 draft by the Braves and remained with the organization through the 2004 season. He then went to the Tigers from 2005-09, the Mets in 2010, then drifted into the Astros and Reds’ farm systems before returning to the Tigers for the last two years.

Hessman took 250 plate appearances at the major league level, batting .188/.272/.422 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI.