As I said in a recent post, relievers are not always acquired. Sometimes they are created. If one thing is becoming clear in A's-land these days, it's that bullpens are more important than they used to be. Starting pitchers throw only 2/3 of a game and a lock down bullpen like the Royals boast can truly shorten games.
Like most teams, the Royals win every game they lead after 9 innings but they also win nearly every game they lead after 8, 7, or 6. In contrast, Oakland's epic and universal meltdown of every reliever they have tried shows how quickly a shaky bullpen can turn a promising game, or season, into a cesspool of despair.
While aiming to shore up weaknesses in LF and perhaps up the middle, you have to think the A's are going to make the bullpen a priority going forward. The question is how. Thinking outside the box, I have an idea that I actually quite like so today I run it up the flagpole to see whether or not you salute.
Rather than spending $8.3-$10M on a new reliever, numbers I snatched purely out of the air and which have nothing to do with Jim Johnson or Tyler Clippard, my hope and expectation is that the A's will use some of their payroll flexibility to add a quality SP to the mix. Most appealing to me as realistic and A's-y possibilities are Wei-In Chen, Doug Fister, and a Scott Kazmir reunion, but since I don't know who is interested in signing with Oakland or who will be affordable, let us just imagine that the A's ink, for perhaps a 3-year deal, a pitcher who figures to be as good or better than Jesse Chavez.
This solves step 1, freeing Chavez to become part of the 2016 bullpen where not only would he be protected from the dreaded post 100-IP skid but where he can throw 94MPH and perhaps dominate in a set-up role. However, it's step 2 that takes matters outside the box and into "this bullpen could rock!" territory...
With his 7IP gem for AA Midland last night (7 IP, 3 hits, 0 ER, 0 BB, 9 K), Sean Manaea has now thrown 28⅔ IP this season and might finish the season at around 60 IP. If you're not familiar with the A's recent acquisition from the Ben Zobrist trade, in terms of pedigree, stuff, and even delivery, Manaea reminds one quite a bit of Francisco Liriano, with a low to mid-90s fastball, plus slider, and solid changeup from the left side, and the perceived upside of a solid #2 SP. He is a truly exciting prospect if he stays healthy (a hip injury, that when he compensated for it caused some shoulder soreness, delayed Manaea's progress and explains the low IP total this year).
It is unrealistic to think Manaea will throw more than 100-120 IP in 2016, especially if the A's prize his arm and wish to play it safe with him. The A's pretty much have 3 options for Manaea in 2016:
* Put him in the minor leagues, likely at AAA, where he will use up many of the innings he has to offer.
* Put him in Oakland's rotation, where he will have to be shut down sooner rather than later -- as Jesse Hahn would have been this season had he stayed healthy -- and where he might be a bit rushed. (Manaea will turn 23 before the season but has never pitched in AAA and just began his AA career, where he will probably get a total of 6 starts.)
* Give him the same treatment the MInnesota Twins gave Rule 5 pick Johan Santana, and Francisco Liriano himself, and put Manaea in the bullpen for his rookie season, then move him to the rotation (this could be at the 2016 All-Star Break or more likely for the 2017 season).
Why do I love the last option?
First of all, as a reliever Manaea gets a soft landing in the big leagues to offset the fact that he would be making a jump from 60 AA innings to the show. He can pitch in middle to long relief initially, and then ease into a high leverage role at a pace that works for him. The A's did this very successfully with Justin Duchscherer, on his way to becoming a top notch SP, as well as with Huston Street, on his way to quickly assuming the closer's role.
Secondly, you use the innings Manaea has to give in 2016 to help the big league club rather than to help AAA Nashville. Make no mistake about it, Manaea's stuff is good enough to get big league hitters out now. You don't want to rush him but you also don't want to waste him if he is ready to give you 60-70 innings that can significantly strengthen your bullpen.
Thirdly, if you put him in the Oakland bullpen and ease him into a bigger and bigger role, sooner rather than later you have Manaea joining Chavez, and hopefully Sean Doolittle and R.J. Alvarez, as late inning relievers who can leverage short outings into electric stuff. Add Francisco Rodriguez, along with perhaps Pat Venditte or Fernando Abad or Dan Otero or maybe it's someone like Aaron Brooks in long relief, and you could potentially have as good a bullpen in 2016 as the 2015 bullpen is terrible.
I love the potential that the quartet of Doolittle, Alvarez, Chavez, and Manaea offer, with the luxury of Rodriguez as your 5th reliever in a hard throwing, "out pitch" oriented bullpen. Sure it could fail -- bullpens are, if nothing else, unpredictable -- but it looks to me, on the surface, to have true potential to excel.
Is the rotation still good enough? With the signing of a Chenfistmir, I think it is. Here's the possible depth chart with one solid FA signing and Chavez/Manaea helping to anchor the bullpen:
And remember, should things get dicey in the rotation, both Chavez and Manaea are always about a week away from being stretched out to start, ready to give you at least 10 starts without any concern about the innings total taking a toll.
In fact, come the All-Star Break, if Chavez and Manaea have each thrown around 60 IP and you're in contention, instead of making a trade for a SP you might just add one or both to the rotation for the stretch drive. Nice to have a couple excellent SPs in your back pocket for the second half. Even nicer to have a lock down bullpen for the season.
What do you think?