UPDATE: Collin Cowgill went 3 for 3 with a bases clearing 2B, Oakland rapped out 15 hits in all, and Tyson Ross tossed 3 shutout innings, as the A's beat the White Sox 9-4 today. Hmm...Perhaps the "now 8-3 A's" will actually need a closer this year more than just occasionally! According to Jane Lee, however, Bob Melvin has ruled out Fautino De Los Santos for the time being. Maybe Melvin read this morning's post, which appears below for your added commentary...
I believe "the bullpen" is the biggest area of the game today where conventional thinking has gotten in the way of best thinking. First of all relievers are important, if only because we are in an era where starting pitchers average about 6 IP and as a result "the bullpen" throws about 1/3 of the game. So while a given reliever may not be a key piece, as a collective your bullpen is bound to impact your season quite a bit.
One of the reasons relievers are often considered not to be all that valuable is that they simply don't throw nearly as many innings as a starting pitcher. How much can a reliever impact a season throwing 70 IPs compared to a starting pitcher who throws 180? They can't, but at the same time the "70 IP reliever" is an unnecessary construct to assign to every member of your bullpen. "Fun fact": In 2011, Grant Balfour led A's relievers with all of 62 IP.
I would like to see more "2-inning relievers" because any reliever who can sustain success over 2 IPs can not only throw more like 100 IPs but they can also help a team avoid what I believe has become a huge trap: A parade of 3 relievers used to pitch 3 IPs, leading to the fatigue (and likely injuries) that result from "he's working for the 3rd time in 4 days..."
My ideal bullpen would have a couple "2-inning guys" rather than a bunch of "one-inning guys" and would have one true "long reliever": A pitcher who can give you 5 innings on the occasional day your starting pitcher gets lit up early (or injured). The A's have tried, in the recent past, to get through those games with 5-6 short relievers and the problem is that it creates a domino effect of fatigue in the subsequent days, where everyone is overworked and you are seemingly always trying to catch up.
After the jump, let's look at the A's 2012 bullpen and how it could best be constructed to follow these guiding principles.
My closer would be Grant Balfour. Joey Devine's last appearance shows why he should not be named the closer: With a closer, you need to know what you're getting and the last thing you want is a pitcher who might, at any moment, go Nuke LaLoosh on you. Brian Fuentes is best suited not so much for "LOOGY" duty, but to be strategically used in innings, or for a series of 3-4 hitters, that is more "lefty-heavy". Your ideal closer is indifferent to the L/R splits, because the 9th inning doesn't allow a manager to select who you're facing: You get who you get. As for Fautino De Los Santos, he may be the future closer but not only is he less proven, and thus less likely than Balfour to be consistent and reliable, but also right now I think he's more valuable in a "6th-8th inning" role.
De Los Santos is the ideal "2-inning pitcher". A former starter with a great fastball/slider combination, he may lack the 3rd pitch to start but he doesn't lack the 2 pitches or the stamina to dominate for 6 outs. On days he is sufficiently rested, I would much sooner let De Los Santos work the 7th and 8th than have Fuentes or Devine also work. They can work tomorrow, or if they worked yesterday they don't need to pitch two days in a row, 3 out of 4, 4 out of 6...
If Tyson Ross winds up in the bullpen, he's another ideal "2-inning pitcher," but right now he's in the mix for the rotation and that's even better. For right now, Fautino fits that role beautifully. When De Los Santos gets the last out of the 6th, why not let him work the 7th and into the 8th? In this model, he could wind up throwing over 100 IPs without being used "too often," and that alone makes him more a valuable pitcher.
Brian Fuentes and Joey Devine become your other "high leverage" pitchers, with Fuentes getting the nod for more lefty-heavy innings or situations and Devine for more right-heavy ones -- though who is more tired or fresh can also dictate which one might get the call.
Then you have your two "lower leverage" guys. Perhaps it's Jerry Blevins and Neil Wagner, maybe it's Jordan Norberto and Andrew Carignan Ryan Cook. Whoever earns those spots, ideally at least one of them can give you 2 innings when you need, rather than you having to parade several different relievers out there just to get through 27 outs.
Graham Godfrey would be a good choice for a long man, because that role shouldn't go to a good young prospect (like Brad Peacock or Jarrod Parker) as your long reliever doesn't get consistent enough work. And your long man doesn't so much have to be good as he has to be long. These are "roll the dice" games where it's great if your long man comes in and has a great game and maybe you can steal away a win, but mostly he's there to make sure today is at most one loss, and not a game that will continue to have reverberations throughout the week.
The days of the Rollie Fingers "3 IP save" are past and that's fine. What shouldn't be past is the notion that even if your long man isn't one of your best 7 relievers, you still need him more than you need your "7th best short reliever," and that a good "2-inning reliever" can be valuable to the point where it's probably worth developing some of your young relievers to be "6-out guys".
In summary, I'm hoping the A's are wise enough to carry a true "long man" and to realize the value of having one of your "high leverage" relievers (e.g., De Los Santos strategically leveraged for over 100 IPs, and one of your "low leverage" relievers (e.g., Norberto or Wagner) also given "6-out duty" to help keep your other relievers from having to work as often.