On Monday, the Oakland Athletics will need to make one last 25-man roster move when Jason Hammel formally reports to the club ahead of his likely Wednesday debut at AT&T Park against the San Francisco Giants. On Saturday, the A's made the difficult and perhaps only temporary choice to option Tommy Milone to Sacramento. Monday's move will have far greater ramifications for one member of the bullpen, each of which are out of options: Brad Mills or Jim Johnson.
The acquisitions of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel push both Tommy Milone and Brad Mills out of the starting rotation. What is Mills' role going forward?
Mills so far
Brad Mills, "Buck", "Dolla Dolla", "Dollar General", or whatever you want to call him, was famously acquired last month for one dollar so that the Milwaukee Brewers would not have to spend any time processing his opt-out paperwork. I believe the transaction went something like this (from three seconds on):
The Pacific Coast League's 2014 ERA leader amongst pitchers with at least 75 innings pitched was acquired as a replacement on June 17 for Drew Pomeranz after he incurred a boxer's fracture on his non-pitching hand punching a wooden chair after a bad start against the Texas Rangers on June 16.
Mills has made three starts. His first line looks so-so: 4 IP, 4 H, 3 R (2 ER), 4 BB, 4 SO, 0 HR, 1 HBP. However, it can be written off as excitement over being given a chance in the major leagues after not appearing there at all in 2013, even giving Japan's Orix Buffaloes a try last October before signing his opt-out deal with the Brewers.
His second start went much better against the Mets on June 25, though he was still rather hard hit. After tossing six innings of scoreless at'em balls, Mills gave up a one-out three-run home run to Lucas Duda to end his day. He ended up credited with the victory ultimately, and did not walk a batter.
Brad Mills showed major improvement in his third start for the Green and Gold. July 1 against the Detroit Tigers, Mills struck out six though walked three and gave up three runs over six innings. Mills took the loss against Rick Porcello's second consecutive shutout. In his final inning, he conceded a two-run home run to J.D. Martinez.
Mills going forward
Brad Mills could remain on the roster in the long relief role recently vacated by Jeff Francis, who was designated for assignment to make room for reliever Eric O'Flaherty. It's a small sample to be sure, but Mills' entire MLB career has been a small sample size. Before joining the A's he had only 53⅓ innings at the Major League level, good for a 7.76 ERA and a 5.50 FIP scattered over four seasons. He has been creditable in his starts, and the main damage has come at the end of his starts. It seems he's ideal to mop-up for four or five innings or make emergency starts (think Yusmeiro Petit if you want a comp).
Another thing going for Mills is that his PCL performance this year is quite interesting. I don't know if he has figured something out but he might be another Jesse Chavez-type project player, someone that could blossom with enough Curt Young magic and time to mature in pitch selection and placement. He started the year with just 95 days of service time, and could be under team control through 2019 if the A's will have him.
Jim Johnson has shown signs of life at times, but it has been apparent for a long time that he has been the last "short reliever" in the bullpen. His only high leverage appearances since failing to record an out in his final chance to regain the closer role on May 12 have been born of necessity: He has either been the last man out of the bullpen in extra innings (vs. Miami on June 28) or the first man out of the bullpen when the pitcher performs adequately in a short outing (vs. Boston on June 20 in Brad Mills' Oakland debut).
Johnson was serving as the temporary mop-up man once Jeff Francis was designated for assignment, but he appears to be ill-suited for the role. He could not get through his third inning of relief against the Marlins, forcing Francis to enter to collect his first career save. The 45-pitch effort was a career-long relief effort for him.
Who to designate for assignment?
Jim Johnson's salary is gone, over, finished, don't even think of it. There are too many better short relief pitchers in the current bullpen for Jim Johnson to have any place on this team. Even if he stays, he's only here for the rest of the year.
Mills, on the other hand, has the potential to be a lot of things. He might be terrible, in which case Drew Pomeranz is back as long reliever. He might be a diamond-in-the-rough starting rotation depth that makes him another Jesse Chavez story that the A's get to keep around until 2019.
Between those two, the answer is clear. Absent a decision to go with an eight-man pen (and I suppose optioning Eric Sogard), Jim Johnson's last day in an Oakland uniform was Sunday.