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Bullpen Triage: Dr. Nico Weighs In

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   The A’s bullpen, once a pillar of depth and dominance, is suddenly a worrisome web of wobbly weakness. At least for the next couple of weeks, until Casilla comes around and/or Devine comes back, I think a couple specific changes are needed if the A’s are to stay afloat in the 6th-8th innings of games. Here is what Dr. Nico is ordering, and why:

   1. Brad Ziegler needs to be moved into the official “set up” role. Sure he is bound to regress, but he has thrown the ball legitimately well, he has handled pressure innings just fine at the major league level, and for a while hitters will still be facing him for the first time – which means one can reasonably hope Ziggy will pitch above his “true ability” for a while, even if his true ability is not the dominance he has enjoyed over his first 15 innings.

Slotting Ziggy in the set-up role would not only give all the relievers more distinct roles (which they prefer), but it would allow Embree to pitch where he is best suited, as a “set-up to the set-up” guy – a valuable reliever who can pitch often because he’s durable, can maybe come into face a couple lefties in the 6th or 7th as needed or handle the 7th, or take over in the 10th, etc. Embree is being overexposed as the “#2 reliever,” but is in fact quite useful as one of the “3rd or 4th guys on the depth chart”. Casilla is not ready to assume high leverage situations but offers depth along side Embree – two power arms for middle relief situations.

Worried about Ziggy’s left-right splits? In the words of Mark Twain, “Reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.” Looking at the numbers so far this year (note: I tried and tried to find his 2007 L/R stats and failed), his performance against left-handed hitters only looks bad if you compare it to his performance against right-handed hitters. In other words, he hasn’t struggled against left-handed hitters so much as he has thoroughly dominated right-handed hitters:

In 2008, over 24.1 IP in Sacramento, pitching in a hitter’s league Ziggy held left-handed batters to a .257 average – which is solid for a “weaker split” – but he thoroughly dominated right-handed batters, who hit just .118 against him. With Oakland so far, in 15 IP Ziggy has held lefties to a .222 average, .222 OBP, and .222 slugging percentage, while righties have hit only .185. So this season, you have a 39.1 inning sample during which Ziggy has done fine against lefties, and just using observation you can add that major league lefties have often had defensive swings against him, more and more so with each appearance, and they are producing a lot of strikeouts and routine ground balls.

   2. The A’s should release Keith Foulke and call up either Dallas Braden or Lenny DiNardo (I’ll assume Braden because he is pitching much better right now for Sacramento). This is not a “Foulke sucks!” cry, it’s recognition that the A’s need another guy capable of pitching long relief so that they can utilize Chad Gaudin more freely as another key “3rd or 4th guy on the depth chart”.

Foulke is caught between skills. He cannot pitch long relief like Gaudin can, he does not have the future of Casilla or A. Brown, and he does not have as much left in the tank as Embree. Now that his peripherals have caught up to him, Foulke is a poor-man’s version of any A’s reliever you can name.

You could potentially even use Braden as a true LOOGY when Gaudin was rested enough to serve as the “emergency long man,” but mostly Braden would be the long-man for as many days as necessary after Gaudin pitched. Foulke is holding the A’s up because while he pitches no better than Gaudin, he also takes a roster spot away from a long reliever – so Geren is unable to use Gaudin more freely. Foulke’s spot needs to go to someone who can serve as a long reliever; meanwhile, Gaudin, Casilla, and A. Brown are more than capable of filling Foulke’s middle relief shoes – and at least they represent the A’s future.

   Street closing and Ziggy setting up, flanked by Embree, Casilla, and Gaudin in middle relief, with A. Brown and Braden in the fold as needed. That looks better to me than what the A’s are throwing out there right now – heck, it may even be good.

UPDATE (1:30pm PDT): Keith Foulke has been placed on the 15-day DL and the A's have called up left-hander Jerry Blevins from Sacramento.