After a season where the 2015 Athletics set an Oakland record number of one-run (35) and two-or-fewer-run (53) losses, the worst bullpen ERA (4.63) in the American League, and tied for third-most blown saves (25), it's safe to say that the A's are on their way to a major bullpen overhaul. One example of a successful overhaul the A's might look to is the Houston Astros, though it's a pretty simple formula and not a guarantee for success: spend money and hope you picked the right relievers.
Learning from the Astros
The Astros ended their 2014 with the worst bullpen ERA in baseball (4.80) and third-worst FIP (4.11). They concluded the 2015 regular season with the sixth-best ERA (3.27) and third-best FIP (3.38).
Much has been made of Houston's shrewd signings of Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek, but that's not nearly the whole story. From FanGraphs, here are the Astros relievers that did not pitch an inning in relief for the Astros in 2014.
|Houston Astros reliever ERA, 2015, new relievers|
Will Harris was a key waiver claim from the Arizona Diamondbacks in the offseason, and his new coaches fixed the curveball he could not quite get right in Arizona. Harris ended up leading the Houston bullpen in innings pitched.
Joe Thatcher signed as a free agent with a $1,000,000 contract and ended up primarily used as a LOOGY. The Diamondbacks traded Oliver Perez to the Astros in August. The rest were either starters pressed into bullpen service (Hernandez, Velasquez, Fiers, Wojciechowski, Straily) or made an uneventful debut (Feliz).
Only six of the 20 pitchers that pitched out of Houston's bullpen in 2014 returned to pitch in 2015, and just three for more than 20 innings:
|Houston Astros reliever ERA, returning pitchers|
Tony Sipp and Josh Fields both improved upon their 2014 ERAs, though they each basically maintained their sub-three FIPs. Chad Qualls didn't quite seem to have what he had in 2014 against everybody except the A's, who tagged him for 12 of his 17 earned runs that year.
The Astros set aside a number of relievers who were just terrible, though one or two could have had some promise in their bullpen:
|Houston Astros reliever ERA, 2014, non-returners|
|Jorge De Leon||0||0||0||8||7.1||4.91||6.81||-0.2|
Man that's a lot of innings for 5+ ERA relievers. As for the rest, Jose Veras ended up spending the year in Triple-A while the Astros allowed Matt Albers to reach free agency. Jorge De Leon passed through the A's for a while during the offseason before getting released after the Winter Meetings.
Well it seems simple enough. Sign a good reliever (Gregerson), claim a great reliever (Harris), sign a decent reliever (Neshek), let Sipp go from good to great, Fields go from meh to good, and limit your bullpen collapse to one reliever (Qualls). Squeeze in a LOOGY somewhere (Joe Thatcher or Oliver Perez), and that's your seven-man bullpen.
None of these are guarantees of course, but let's see what the A's might do if they want to replicate Houston's offseason moves.
Going full Astros
Let's begin by seeing the eligible returners who should probably hang out in Triple-A or be released next season. Let's say anybody with a FIP over 4.00:
|Returning Oakland A's pitchers as relievers, 2015, min. 5 relief innings, in order of FIP|
|Felix Doubront||0||0||1||3||11.2||3.86||3.48||0.1||Left||Out of options|
|Arnold Leon||0||2||0||19||26.2||4.39||4.18||0.0||Right||Out of options|
|Evan Scribner||2||2||0||54||60.0||4.35||4.33||-0.1||Right||Out of options|
|Fernando Abad||2||2||0||62||47.2||4.15||5.50||-0.7||Left||Out of options|
The A's, I think, have too many left-handed reliever candidates. Sean Doolittle and Drew Pomeranz are givens for the bullpen, but Oakland carrying three left-handers in the bullpen this year was more a matter of circumstance with Pomeranz leaving the rotation and others out of options. Sean Nolin might even be a bullpen candidate, as he is out of options and would have to go to the bullpen if he does not make the Opening Day rotation. I don't see the A's going out of their way to add a left-hander to the bullpen.
As for the right-handers, I could see the A's giving up on the idea that Jesse Chavez has the ability to pitch 200 innings and instead keep him the way the Giants used Yusmeiro Petit in 2014 as long reliever and quality spot starter. Petit ended up with 117 innings in that role in 2014. Fernando Rodriguez would be the only other right-hander carried over from last year's bullpen, so the A's should be looking for two or three quality right-handed relievers this offseason.
There are other options which I think will be nice to have in Triple-A, but that I think need to be set aside for now in favor of a new bullpen approach. Dan Otero has unfortunately moved into "project" status, but he has an option year remaining and ended up just shy of the five years service time that would give him the right to refuse a minor league assignment. We'll see whether Ryan Dull's initial scoreless streak was a fluke or something to rely on going into spring training. R.J. Alvarez needs better command of his pitches.
Spending money on a right-hander
So let's say the A's want to grab two or three right-handed relievers in free agency, as the Astros did. Let's also say you're tired of the A's giving "projects" like Eric O'Flaherty a try and are willing to spend a little bit of coin to get some decent relievers. Here are your choices:
|Free agent RH relievers 2015, reliever ERA or FIP under 4.00|
It's unusual for all but the top of the non-closer relief free agents to get longer than one-year deals in free agency, though Darren O'Day might be the exception here. I could see the A's spending $10-15 million on three relievers and still have enough payroll room to sign an outfield bat for the longer term.
I can't imagine an offseason where the A's don't pick up a reliever in trade, though there are too many permutations to even begin to discuss what Beane and Forst will do.
Always go full Astros
Let's spend some money on the bullpen this year and pray the A's claim or trade for the right pitchers. Bullpens are so volatile anyway, but 2015 was just another level of terribleness that I am not desperate to see repeated.
Statistics from FanGraphs. Information on available free agents from MLB Trade Rumors.