Now that the A's have officially declined Alan Embree's $3 million option for 2009 and have publicly urged him to market himself to other teams, the ballclub is passing the reigns of the 2009 bullpen into the hands of Huston Street (not the oldest member of the current 'pen by age, but certainly the most seasoned of the corps in terms of service time). I kind of have a small problem with this. Not that Embree was of any real use last season, but his steady presence in the midst of a stream of rookie relievers seemed to calm the young guys a bit. Huston even alluded to the hole Embree's departure would create in the back of the pen:
"Alan is a huge loss for the team in the sense of leadership and experience, in the sense of having someone who's not afraid to step up and take charge," Street said. "Alan is very conscious about being vocal when he needs to be and that was really invaluable for the young guys. We're losing a presence a young team absolutely needs. We'll need someone else to step up and assume that role."
Add to this the fact that Street wasn't really the model "team first" leader last season and the fact that he's likely to be traded this off-season, and you're looking at a 2009 Oakland bullpen that will be "anchored" by a bunch of 1st and 2nd years and a guy who once assumed a different age and identity other than his own in order to get signed to a professional contract. Granted, some of those young relievers are very talented, yet, the lack of veteran experience must be somewhat concerning to team brass.
This phenomanon wasn't limited to the A's bullpen last season. Going into 2008, the team's outfield consisted of a whole bunch of 1st and 2nd year players. Travis Buck, attempting to compensate for the loss of team leader Nick Swisher from the outfield mix, put enormous pressure on himself to succeed, eventually broke-down and spent most of the season on the disabled list or in the minors. There were plenty of vets in the infield last season, but they were either perpetually injured (Chavez, M. Sweeney) or mostly ineffective (Ellis, Crosby). When veterans are not even with the team in person for most of the season it's difficult for them to have any influence at all with younger players...and when they aren't contributing to the team's success, it's got to be difficult for younger players to look at them for guidance and/or as examples during their own struggles.
I realize that when putting together a team on a budget, talent is always going to win out over experience. But I think that young teams learning how to win in this league need to be surrounded by at least a token few consistent, seasoned professionals. Look at the Rays last season. In 2007 the team had one of the worst bullpens in the majors. Then they took a chance and signed the epitome of grizzled vets (Troy Percival) to help re-form the bullpen identity. The team bullpen then went on to improve by about an entire run of ERA in 2008 and be a real strength to the team that progressed all the way to the World Series, with mostly young talent. Granted, the majority of that improvemnt was based on improved plaer performance and just better overall talent, but the presence of the "knows how to get it done at this level" Percival certainly had a very positive effect on the team as a whole, without costing the team a whole lot of wasted opportunity, money or talent.
At this point in the organization's rebuilding process, the A's are certainly not looking to add huge, long-term pieces for tens of million of dollars. But they should be looking for vets that can be both a positive, steady, calming influence in the clubhouse and on the field. That's just another reason why I think the A's should really consider bringing Jason Giambi back next season or even looking to acquire a similar familiar name like Nick Swisher or Eric Byrness. Billy Beane has intimated that he'll look to "giving the young pitchers some breathing room" by making a few additions to the team's offense. Well, let's hope those additions don't end with the waiver-wire pickup of Joe Dillon and the passing of the torch to Andrew Brown in the bullpen...