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Imagining the Oakland A's bullpen without Tyler Clippard or Drew Pomeranz

Bob says he's not looking up again until one of you starts pitching well.
Bob says he's not looking up again until one of you starts pitching well.
Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The Oakland A's bullpen has been terrible in 2015. Just the worst. When they've entered with a tie or a close lead, they've blown the game about half the time, which is as bad as any MLB bullpen has been in the last decade. On Thursday they took arguably their best reliever, Drew Pomeranz, and put him back in the rotation. And in all likelihood, they will trade closer Tyler Clippard in the next week. Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!

Let's look at who will be left in the pen when Clippard inevitably departs. I'll also assume that Eric O'Flaherty will be either traded or released at some point:

Fernando Rodriguez
Dan Otero
Edward Mujica
Pat Venditte (on rehab!)
Evan Scribner
Fernando Abad
Arnold Leon*

Oh, man. I should have given you a NSFW warning. That's on me, everyone, I'm sorry. Who is the closer in that group? Just kidding, it's a trick question! No lead will make it all the way to the 9th inning so there will be no save situations! In Oakland's bullpen, curveball hangs you.

* Angel Castro was called up today for Leon, but I imagine that's only for stopgap purposes since Leon threw multiple innings yesterday.


Here's the thing about bullpens, though. The best relievers this year by bWAR have been, in the following order:

Wade Davis
Dellin Betances
Glen Perkins
Will Harris
Chasen Shreve
Carson Smith
Zach Britton

Davis, Perkins and Britton are familiar names now, but in the past they each suddenly went from being failures one year to relief aces the next. Betances' MLB starting career lasted exactly one game before he moved to relief. Harris is a lefty for the Tigers. Just kidding, he's a righty for the Astros, but you didn't know that because you still haven't heard of him, even though he has a 1.23 ERA for a division rival. Ever heard of Jeurys Familia, A.J. Ramos, or Kevin Siegrist? They're all top-5 in the NL, which is led in bWAR by 35-year-old Brad Ziegler.

The point is that the best relief performances don't always come from the best relievers, or from the biggest or most expensive names. I used bWAR rather than fWAR here precisely because it gives the pitcher some credit for the more luck-based aspects of the game, like low hit totals and fluky ERAs. Some of the guys on that list aren't good bets to sustain their performances, but they've done what they've done to this point and prevented real runs from scoring in real games, lucky or not.

So, if 30-year-old no-name Harris can post a .149 BABIP for 44 innings, and Shreve can make the jump to the bigs after a dozen career innings in Triple-A, and guys like Davis and Perkins can be so much better in relief than as starters, then why can't some of Oakland's arms do the same? You can find a reason for each guy.

- Rodriguez: Struck out 17 of last 33 batters faced over last 7 games
- Scribner: 12.75 K-to-walk ratio, by far the best in MLB
- Venditte: Didn't give up a run in first 4 MLB games before injury
- Leon: 23 Ks, 2 BB in AAA relief; 10 Ks, 1 BB in MLB
- Otero: 2.01 ERA & 2.92 FIP in 2013-14, 125⅔ innings
- Abad: 1.57 ERA last year, 1.69 in June/July this year
- Mujica: 2.63 ERA in 15 games for A's
- Castro: lol just kidding he's not very good

Perhaps Rodriguez can use all that strikeout potential to become an effective closer for a couple of months, or Otero can go back to his old self in a setup role. Maybe Venditte can blossom as a multi-inning specialist with his perpetual platoon advantage. Sometimes a guy like Leon moves to the pen and becomes a star by unleashing everything he's got one inning at a time, like Pomeranz seemed to be doing. Maybe Barry Zito will show up to help the rotation and Pom can return to relief work. A high-strikeout guy like Abad or Scribner sometimes lucks into a .200 BABIP for a few months and posts a fluky sub-2.00 ERA; heck, Abad himself did it last year, and in the last two months he's quietly racked up 15 strikeouts to 2 walks in 10⅔ frames. I'm not asking these pitchers to suddenly become more talented or to launch their new careers as consistent studs, nor am I expecting all of them to click. I'm just asking a couple of them to pitch a bit over their heads for a month or two, just as so many have performed below their abilities to this point.

And if those guys can't get it done, then how about R.J. Alvarez? Since returning to Triple-A in May, he made one disastrous appearance, but then he settled down and has thrown 19 innings with 29 Ks, 8 walks, no homers, and a 2.37 ERA. Perhaps he's ready for another look, certainly more so than Ryan Cook (getting worse every month in Triple-A), Phil Coke, Angel Castro, or recent acquisition Aaron Kurcz. In Double-A, 25-year-old closer Ryan Dull has a 0.62 ERA and is striking out 30% of the batters he faces; how long might he need in Triple-A before helping out in Oakland, given how quickly relievers seem able to rise up the ranks?

Every year, even every month, good relievers go bad and new heroes come out of nowhere, far more so than at other positions. Even when you do go out and get a big-name guy, he can always have a career-worst year, like Johnson or Gregerson or Clippard. Bullpens are important, but every year I believe less and less that teams can control how good theirs will be.

Will the A's pen get less talented the day that Clippard is traded? Almost certainly. But that doesn't necessarily mean the pen's performance will be worse over the final two months than it was in the first four, even with seemingly inferior personnel.

Finally, your periodic reminder that Jim Johnson is a closer once again and hasn't blown a save since early June:

Jim Johnson, 2015: 2.15 ERA, 3.22 FIP, 31 save situations (20 holds, 8 saves, 3 blown saves)