Forensic scientists are busy at work in Phoenix, examining the precise moment that pitchers and catchers officially reported to see if it was the exact same instant that Justin Duchscherer's back stiffened up. Was the countdown, on the A's team blog, in fact secretly the official countdown to "Duke's first setback" -- and most importantly, who will play Duchscherer in the Oliver Stone movie?
But that's not what I want to talk about today. The A's have not one, not two, but three lefty relievers in the mix. They are, in alphabetical order: Jerry Blevins, Craig Breslow, and Brad Kilby...Who will break camp with the big league club, and who willn't?
First things first: The A's will carry a long reliever. Ben Sheets' shoulder, Justin Duchscherer's aforementioned back, Dallas Braden's toesies, Trevor Cahill's rawness ("rawth"?), and Gio Gonzalez' propensity to be really great or really awful all suggest the A's will be more likely, not less likely, to want to have a true long reliever on call. That could be Clay Mortensen or it could be John Meloan. Whoever it is, he will leave only 6 spots for short relievers and 4 of those are slated to go to Andrew Bailey, Joey Devine, Michael Wuertz, and Brad Ziegler.
So in all likelihood, 3 lefty relievers, all of whom are adept at neutralizing left-handed hitters, will fight for 2 spots. I want to start my analysis of this battle by talking about Craig Breslow. Almost every time the A's lefty relief is discussed, Breslow is talked about like the relative shoo-in of the three. I'm not sure this is appropriate.
Breslow is certainly the most experienced of the three and he can't as easily be "stored for later" as Blevins and Kilby, who still have options. On the flip side, though, Breslow was uncoveted enough to pass through waivers last Summer until Oakland could claim him, and thus is arguably fungible enough that a pitcher like him will become available soon enough if the A's find themselves looking. He is also not much of a sunk cost, with a 2010 salary of just $422,000 compared to Blevins' $405,000 and Kilby's $400,000.
The question is: How good is Breslow, and how good is he relative to how good Blevins and Kilby are likely to be? Breslow is a bit of a puzzle. His career BAA is impressive (.209). Lefties have hit just .196 against him. Perhaps even more impressive, righties have hit just .220.
Furthermore, if you watch Breslow you hardly feel like you're seeing Eric Plunk ("nice fastball, but does he have any idea where it's going?") Breslow does not come across as terribly wild -- yet when push comes to shove he walks an awful lot of batters. For his career, Breslow has issued 67 BBs in 145 innings (a rate of 4.16/9IP). This includes walking more than a batter every other inning against righties.
Meanwhile, in 2008-09 Blevins held hitters to a .229 average but also walked just 3/9IP. Kilby's big league cup of coffee was just 17 IP, but with a deceptive delivery and good command he held batters to a .174 average while walking only 4. More importantly, both pitchers' minor league track records suggest the ability to be "not that hittable overall," to limit walks, and to manage righties well. Breslow does those things -- and then add a bunch more walks.
Have fans handed Breslow a spot prematurely? Is it really "his spot to lose," or is it actually "Blevins/Kilby's to lose" -- meaning that if they show, in spring training, that they are poised simply to continue the foundation they have laid in the minors and majors so far, perhaps the A's feel those two can do everything Breslow can do, only with more strikes?
In other words: Until a connection is found between molecular biology and the ability to cure a colleague's stiff back, you may not want to hand Breslow a spot just yet.