The A's traded Andrew Bailey in the off-season and now have a huge hole at closer. Oakland's FanFest last weekend did not generate any answers, so fans are left wondering who is going to finish games for the A's in 2012.
First, some of the guys left on the free agent market:
Jason Isringhausen showed some promise of reviving his career last year with the Mets. He finished the season with 7 saves, a 4.05 ERA and 1.286 WHIP. He is supposed to be healthy and ready to pitch. Coming back to Oakland would bring him full circle back to the team where he made his first All-Star team and a stadium he pitched great in.
Mike Gonzalez is considered by many to be the top available free agent reliever. He hasn't had a winning record or ERA under 4.00 in three of the past 4 seasons, but when he's good, he's great. His career whip is under 1.25 while his SO/9 sits at a lofty 10.3 (and would be a lot closer to 11 if he hadn't thrown up an 8.6 in 2011). He is also a lefty, which the A's have preferred to stockpile the last few seasons.
Among the other reliever possibilities out there, Scott Linebrink, Luis Ayala and Damaso Marte could all be good fits for Oakland. Ayala had a great year last year with the Yankees (2.09 ERA, 1.27 WHIP), but has no real closing experience (18 total saves in 7 seasons). Linebrink is 35 years old and has fallen off in recent years, but might fit if the A's are looking for a veteran RHP. Dámaso Marté missed all of 2011 but might be a cheap option provided he can pitch again in 2012.
Internally, the A's might have hope Sonny Gray and his 0.45 ERA at AA Midland in 2011, is their star of the future, but he's a ways off and could be kept in the minors until he's ready for the rotation. Joey Devine had a great 2008 with Oakland, but has never topped 50 innings in a season and only has one career save. Devine most likely still has to prove he can stay healthy to get a shot at closing. Fautino De Los Santos is another option. He has top tier stuff, but has struggled with his command of the strike zone at times. Most of the other younger arms in the system still need time to develop consistency, which leaves the two A's veterans as the most viable options.
Before Andrew Bailey returned last season, the A's turned to Brian "T-Rex" Fuentes. Rex posted a 1-8 record and an ERA around 5.00, while struggling with his role. Then, under Melvin, Fuentes turned it completely around. He went undefeated after the All-Star break with an ERA under 1.75. Fuentes led the AL in saves with the Angels as recently as 2009 (48 saves) and would probably be the clear favorite if it weren't for Balfour's outstanding 2011.
Balfour turned in a solid 2011, with a 2.40 ERA and 59 strikeouts in 62 innings. He only has 10 career saves, with 14 blown saves, but he has the grit and pitching ability most teams look for in a closer. He picked up 26 holds last season and has had some amazing WHIPs over the past 4 seasons: 0.891, 1.366, 1.084, and 1.032 in 2011. Balfour has also endeared himself to fans in Oakland as the "Mad Aussie," and takes his role very seriously.
Even though Balfour has the better numbers and is a bit younger (34 to Fuentes' 36), I think Fuentes should start 2012 as the A's closer. Balfour is a great setup man and should be comfortable staying in that role. Fuentes has a lot more experience and showed during 2011's second half that he still has the quality stuff that made him a 4-time All-Star.
If anything breaks down, the A's know they have options in their system, but hopefully they will add another arm before the 2012 season gets underway. Hopefully, whomever the Athletics choose stays healthy and provides a consist presence in the bullpen that the A's have lacked in recent seasons. Otherwise, fans could be in for another bumpy ride during those close, grind-em-out ballgames.
AJ is a sports heckler and FanPoster on AthleticsNation.com
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