Well, it seems like the A's - in their latest, round-about effort to bolster their starting rotation by improving every other part of the club besides the starting rotation - are now eyeing a few left-handed relievers. This makes some sense, as the bullpen corps as currently constructed is a bit righty-heavy and features at least three guys who are much better served facing right-handed batters than lefties (Springer, Ziggy and Wuertz). Only Jerry Blevins, the lone lefty among the current crop, is really tough on lefties and he's likely to be used as more of a traditional set-up guy and not in a matchup/LOOGY type role. Josh Outman could eventually become a situational bullpen piece but he's young enough to either earn a spot in the major league rotation or go back to AAA and remain stretched-out as a starter.
So far, the names that the A's have been publicly linked with to fill this role are Brian Shouse (just signed with Tampa), Andrew Sisco (who NSJ covered in his piece on Friday and is intriguing in his own ways) and Ron Villone - ugh. I guess the A's could turn their attention to Joe Beimel or Will Ohman if they wanted a brand name, but those guys might want more money or more years than the team is willing to offer. My solution: Mark Mulder.
It's true that Mulder has never really been a reliever in his career and is presumably auditioning sometime soon as a free agent starter. At the same time, if you're Mulder right now, after two completely lost years, you're probably hoping to get on a major league mound and start facing major league hitters in major league games as quickly as possible in order to re-establish yourself as a major league quality pitcher...not a starter or reliever, but just a pitcher period. That's why I think it might be an intriguing proposition for him to make his latest comeback as a reliever...for the Oakland Athletics.*
*provided he looks "serviceable" in his workouts.
Consider the following:
- Even in his last semi-full season in 2006, when he struggled mightily overall, Mark was fairly effective against left-handed hitters. He held lefties to a .660 OPS against with a 19-5 K-BB ratio in 83 at-bats...compared to a 1.020 OPS against righties with a disastrous 31-30 K-BB ratio in 296 at-bats. It's a small sample size but it shows, even while struggling, Mark can still be tough against lefties and has a much better handle on his "stuff" when facing them.
- Mark has been working out in Arizona for several months now, working to increase his strength and range of motion in his pitching shoulder. This article from a few months ago shows that he has a pretty good idea what has been bothering him recently, from a mechanical standpoint, and may have figured out ways to mitigate it. Nick Cafardo, while hardly an authoritative source, hinted today in his latest column that Mark might have re-established full range of motion in his left shoulder.
- The A's aren't looking for a guy that can log 200+ innings and win 20 games. They are looking for someone that can take the ball once every few days and get a lefty out.
- At seasonal age 31, Mark is seasoned enough to leverage his considerable experience into a bullpen role, while he's young to still have some "upside" left to play out.
- Mulder should have every incentive to rehabilitate/reinvent/resurrect himself, 1) with a familiar organization for whom he had the best previous years of his career, 2) inside a home park that greatly favors pitchers, 3) in front of a solid overall defense and 4) in a low-pressure role that works into his current strength as a pitcher.
- The A's, with some financial wiggle room, can offer Mulder a highly incentivized deal that would limit the risk to the team.
So how would this play out? Well, as the asterisk on the first page shows, Mulder would have to throw in front of scouts and show that he's at least serviceable at this point to even begin the conversation. Mulder is working out in Arizona, near where the A's hold Spring Training, so he then could be invited to Spring Training as a non-roster invitee.
As far as his contract, I think the team should start with a split minors/majors contract. Possibly offer a 500K minor league deal with a $1 million base major league deal (if he makes the team out of Spring Training). The incentives I could see working if they were based on total appearances. Innings-based incentives wouldn't work well for a reliever, but total appearances would. Say, Mulder can earn an extra 250K for every 20 appearances he makes. That should give him enough of a monetary incentive to go to the bullpen, where he could rack up appearance numbers if he can consistently show the ability to get lefties out. Beyond that, the team could throw in higher incentives for total innings pitched (maybe 500K for every 50 innings of work) and could even dangle an added bonus for possible starts (maybe an extra 500K if he makes 10 or more starts for the team). The incentives would be capped at somewhere between $3-$4 million to keep the contract orderly.
In a perfect world, Mulder spends all of Spring Training building up strength and preparing as a reliever, concentrating on fastball/slider. He gets some good work in and looks like he could handle a specialist role out of the bullpen to open the season. He spends all of April and May in the Oakland bullpen, getting lefties out and building up stamina and confidence. Come June, he starts being stretched out a bit for some long/middle relief outings, incorporating a third pitch. Then, in the middle of the season, he just might have enough confidence/gusto/stamina to step in and make some spot starts when the inevitable injury occurs to the starting rotation.
I think this scenario, or any variation of it, could be beneficial to both parties. For Mark, coming back as a specialist reliever offers him the chance to get back to a big league mound fast, but in a relatively controlled environment where not much is expected of him (compared to what he went through in St Louis). For the A's, they a) get a familiar, well-liked face back into the organization, b) a pitcher that has shown the ability to get lefties out and c) a pitcher with a little upside that could (possibly, with a little luck) provide a little more utility to the pitching staff when compared to your traditional LOOGY.
Of course, the whole plan could blow up in the A's face at any point, but I think that an incentive-based contract would keep the overall risk to a minimum. And since the 2nd lefty/LOOGY role is more of a luxury than a necessity for the bullpen (and Josh Outman could step into that role at any point if they really needed it), it's not like the prospect of success/lack thereof of Mulder would make or break the season. But in the whole scheme of things, it would make for a nice reunion and in the short term may just help the A's pitching staff record a few more outs...