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Oakland A's bullpen revamp goes full Astros redux

The Athletics offseason this year so far resembles that of the Houston Astros, who completed a bullpen revamp of their own.

Reliever John Axford will soon sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Oakland Athletics.
Reliever John Axford will soon sign a two-year, $10 million deal with the Oakland Athletics.
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland Athletics should soon officially announce the signings of right-handed relief pitchers Ryan Madson and John Axford. Madson signed a three-year deal totalling $22 million while Axford signed a two-year deal at up to $10 million.

The moves wrap up an early offseason period devoted to acquiring pitching, both rotation and relief, for the active roster. Right-hander Liam Hendriks and left-hander Marc Rzepczynski were acquired in trades while starting pitcher Rich Hill signed a one-year, $6 million deal.

Only one of Oakland's top seven relievers in relief innings pitched in 2015 is slated to return next year, Fernando Rodriguez. Closer Sean Doolittle also returns; injuries in 2015 limited him to 13 2/3 innings. To illustrate the turnover, compare the ERA and FIP of the 2015 bullpen to the projected 2016, as well as park- and league-adjusted ERA- and FIP- (for both stats, 100 is average and less than 100 is better than average):

A's bullpen, 2015-2016 comparison (all stats as RP in 2015)
2015 2016
(order by relief IP) ERA FIP ERA- FIP- (ordered by role) ERA FIP ERA- FIP-
RP1 Evan Scribner 4.35 4.33 111 109 CL Sean Doolittle 3.95 2.99 101 75
RP2 Fernando Rodriguez 3.84 3.08 98 77 SU Ryan Madson 2.13 3.09 53 77
RP3 Fernando Abad 4.15 5.50 106 139 SU Liam Hendriks 2.92 2.13 72 52
RP4 Dan Otero 6.75 4.40 173 111 MR John Axford 4.20 3.57 92 85
RP5 Drew Pomeranz 2.61 3.01 67 76 MR Fernando Rodriguez 3.84 3.08 98 77
RP6 Tyler Clippard 2.79 3.96 72 100 LOOGY Marc Rzepczynski 5.66 3.36 148 85
RP7 Edward Mujica 4.81 4.89 123 123 LR Sean Nolin (as starter) 5.28 5.13 135 129
RP8 Pat Venditte 4.40 4.15 113 104 RP8 Ryan Dull 4.24 5.37 108 135
RP9 Arnold Leon 4.39 4.18 112 105 RP9 R.J. Alvarez 9.90 7.33 253 185
RP10 Eric O'Flaherty 5.91 4.17 151 105 RP10 J.B. Wendelken AA/AAA

Depth has to be a concern in 2016, of course, with Dull, Alvarez, and Wendelken the remaining depth pieces on the A's 40-man. Arnold Leon is out of options, and he could be waived at the end of spring training as well. But considering the front line players weren't very good for the A's in the first place, 2016's projected bullpen is a massive improvement.

FanGraphs' depth charts based on the Steamer projection system project the A's will get 3.6 WAR out of their bullpen. This would have been good enough for 7th in the American League in 2015, up from -0.1 and 13th last year.

Going full Astros redux

I want to draw your attention back to the idea of going "full Astros" on a bullpen revamp. The Astros took a club that was 13th in the AL in WAR (0.2) and last in ERA (4.80) in 2014 and jumped to one that was second in WAR (5.3) and fourth in ERA (3.27) in 2015. To do that, they gave out $30.5 million for five seasons out of two right-handed pitchers, Luke Gregerson (1.2 WAR) and Pat Neshek (0.3), $1 million to LOOGY Joe Thatcher (0.3), and claimed another right-hander, Will Harris (0.3), off waivers.

The three quality members of the 2014 Astros bullpen, Tony Sipp, Josh Fields, and Chad Qualls, gave good to great performances once again in 2015 to round out the bullpen. The Astros went from giving 298 innings to 4+ ERA relievers to 92 innings, over half of which belonged to Chad Qualls.

To fill in the rest of the squad after spending heavily on the bullpen, the Astros:

(1) signed an infielder that was good enough until his injury let their star prospect pass him up on the depth chart,

(2) an outfielder on a short-term deal with interesting upside for low dollars in Colby Rasmus,

(3) acquired a bad body DH (11 triples though!) that ultimately only had a 99 wRC+ in Evan Gattis, and

(4) made a few other moves to shore up depth, like acquire Hank Conger and Luis Valbuena.

For a team that went from 70 wins to 86, the Astros did not make any huge free agent splashes in the offseason and they gave the prospects they've been building up a chance to succeed.

The A's have the task of knocking down 314 relief innings given to 4+ ERA relievers in 2015. To accomplish that, they've spent $32 million for five seasons out of two right-handed pitchers, obtained a LOOGY in Marc Rzepczynski, and picked up four seasons of another potentially elite right-handed setup man, Liam Hendriks, in trade for Jesse Chavez's walk year.

Two quality members of the 2015 A's bullpen, Sean Doolittle and Fernando Rodriguez, remain. I've penciled in Sean Nolin as the long reliever over the similarly out-of-options Felix Doubront because Nolin has greater team control remaining. Nolin did not pitch in relief at the major league level last season, so he's a little bit of a wild card here overcoming injury and a reduction in velocity perhaps caused by that long layoff.

To fill in the rest of the squad after spending heavily on the bullpen, the A's:

(1) have already traded for literally the same infielder in Jed Lowrie that should be good enough until an injury on the squad opens the door for an infield prospect to be called up like Joey Wendle or Chad Pinder,

(2) potentially will sign an outfielder on a short-term deal with interesting upside for low dollars in Hyun-soo Kim,

(3) will hope their bad body DH, Billy Butler, bounces back after a 99 wRC+ season, and

(4) will make a few moves to shore up other areas like the Rich Hill acquisition, such as sign another starting pitcher.

To go from 68 wins to 86, it doesn't look like the A's are going to make any huge free agent splashes in the offseason, and they're keeping to their commitment to let their infield prospects actually contribute to the major league squad as soon as they're ready.

Emphasizing velocity

That the A's have gone after relievers that greatly increase the bullpen's velocity profile has been extensively covered elsewhere, so I won't reinvent the wheel except to take note of a few interesting tidbits and ask you to read the rest.

First, from FanGraphs' Eno Sarris after the two-year, $10 million deal for John Axford was reported:

And the trio [of Madson, Hendriks, and Axford] comes in averaging 95 mph on their fastball as a group. That's important, too, given the fact that the Athletics had the third-worst bullpen velocity in the game last year. They should be able to improve that standing to at least league average, especially since they've also shipped out Evan Scribner and his 91 mph fastball in the meantime.

A's manager Bob Melvin told the San Francisco Chronicle:

"One of the things we probably didn't have that some of the other bullpens had were hard throwers, guys that come in and miss bats, throwing 95, 96 miles an hour," Melvin said. "We had a couple of guys, but it seems like most bullpens, every time that bullpen door opens up, someone is coming out of the bullpen throwing hard, so that was key."

It's a new look bullpen in Oakland, and that by itself is the most refreshing thing of all.