A's face tough decisions at bullpen
Published: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 5, 2013 at 10:26 p.m.
PHOENIX — The A's carried as many as five left-handers at the same time in the bullpen at times last year, and they used them to great advantage.
Looking into 2013, however, the question is whether the A's can afford to even keep three this time around. Even if they can stretch the roster to wedge a trio of lefties onto the final 25, there will undoubtedly be shocks, including to some currently in the A's clubhouse, when the ultimate decisions on the left-handed relievers come down.
The shocks will come because the A's have one of the best crop of left-handed relievers in recent memory. Pitchers who would be locks to make the big league club in another organization won't with Oakland.
Hideki Okajima is the latest of those, signing a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training in the first days of the spring camp.
“I never looked at the roster when I was coming here,” Okajima said with a grin. “I was just happy for the chance to pitch again in America.
“In Boston (where he helped win a World Series) there was never left-handed depth like this. I know it's going to be tough (making the team), but it's the same for us all.”
That it is. The A's aren't saying, but it seems likely that Sean Doolittle, the converted first baseman, and Jerry Blevins, the only lefty who was with the club all year in 2012, seem locks to get spots.
Doolittle went 2-1 with a 3.04 ERA last year and struck out 60 with a malicious fastball in just 47.1 innings. Blevins was 5-1, 2.48 in his best big league season and has the ability to pitch both middle and short relief, including 1-on-1 matchups with tough left-handed hitters.
“I haven't been doing this for all that long,” Doolittle said, having made the switch from first base in 2011. “But this seems like a place where there a lot of lefties who not only are good but can pitch in multiple roles. It's going to be tough.”
In addition, to the three already mentioned, lefties in the mix include Travis Blackley, who came up big as a starter/reliever after being let go by the Giants last year, Jordan Norberto (4-1, 2.77), Pedro Figueroa (0-3, 3.32) and Garrett Olson, who has bounced around the fringes of baseball as a starter but who could be in the mix in the Oakland bullpen.
“Doolittle has that power arm you look for,” pitching coach Curt Young said. “Blevins is more of a classic lefty; he can go a couple of innings, or he can match up with one tough lefty hitter. You love that versatility.
“Figueroa has come back from Tommy John surgery throwing strikes and he was good for us even though he rode the train from Sacramento to Oakland. Norberto has tremendous stuff, just the guy to throw against a tough lefty hitter. Olson came here looking to impress, and we're learning what he can do. And Okajima has that great deceptive motion and screwball.”
He had one bad year (in 2010), but he was one of the guys who helped Boston win a World Series, and that means something.”
The good news for the A's is that Okajima and Olson are on minor league contracts, so they can be kept in the organizationeven if they don't make the final 25.
Of the rest, only Blackley is out of options, meaning Oakland can send the others to the minors, if desired, without fear of losing them.
Or the A's can make a trade.
“It's too early for us to have to worry about making any kind of decision,” general manager Billy Beane, someone who has never shied away from trades, said. “But I am never going to worry about being in the position of having too many good players. There are a lot of good candidates.”
There are good right-handed candidates, too, and some of them could push the lefties out of the picture. Closer Grant Balfour, setup man Ryan Cook are sure to make the roster while Pat Neshek (2-1, 1.37) and Evan Scribner (2-0. 2.55) were both immensely helpful last season. Beane added Chris Resop to the roster in November, and Resop (1-4, 3.91 for a middle-of-the-road Pittsburgh team) is being thought of internally as having at least an 80 percent chance of making the team.
And then there is the Dan Straily/A.J. Griffin issue. If one of those right-handers doesn't make the roster, the odd man out may be sent to the minor leagues, but there is at least a chance that the non-starter will be considered as the long man in the bullpen.
“Last year there were times when we had four lefties and three right-handers,'' manager Bob Melvin said. ``I don't know that we'll be able to do that this year. I do know it's a nice problem to have.''
Nice or not, it's a problem all the same, or at least it will be when it comes time to make the final decisions.
ROYALS RUN WILD
Bruce Chen and Luke Hochevar combined to allow one run in six innings, and the Kansas City Royals remained undefeated for spring training with an 8-2 victory over the Oakland Athletics on Tuesday.
Oakland's Bartolo Colon, gave up five runs and seven hits in two innings. The 39-year-old right-hander has allowed eight runs — six earned — on 12 hits in four innings in losing his first two starts.
Chen allowed a run on two hits in three innings and Hochevar gave up three hits and walked one without yielding a run. He struck out the final three batters he faced. They are competing for the final slot in the Royals' rotation.
Brett Hayes and Brandon Wood homered for the Royals, who are 10-0-1.
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