In a sense, the A's are victims of the old "too much of a good thing" problem. Who wouldn't like to have Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle and John Axford and Fernando Rodriguez and Ryan Dull and Marc Rzepcynski all performing as well as they have? Only Liam Hendriks has struggled.
Trouble is, Oakland is suffering for not having a long reliever in the mix. Once again tonight, the A's had to scramble to piece together a slew of innings -- in this case 6 innings -- to cover for a starting pitcher who had to be pulled early. Sometimes it has been Eric Surkamp but other times it has been Rich Hill or Sonny Gray who could not get very deep into the game. Every starting pitcher will have some of those nights where it just doesn't come together, and too often in April the A's have had to ask several relievers to extend themselves multiple innings just to eat up innings normally given to one mop-up guy.
Why haven't the A's solved this? The reason stems largely from the fact that Oakland built its bullpen to be good and deep, but did so with a crew of relievers who cannot be optioned to the minor leagues. Of the seven A's relievers that broke camp, only Dull can be sent to AAA. Presumably, the A's have gauged that Dull is more valuable than a generic long reliever and no doubt he has pitched great. But like his colleagues, Dull can only give you 1-2 IP no matter how effective he is.
So no, you can't call up a long man and send Hendriks down. Or stash Rodriguez. Or anyone but Dull. Yet games like tonight's highlight the importance of having a reliever on your staff who can come in and eat 4-5 IP so that your bullpen is not staggering for days over innings anyone could have pitched.
It's a problem that has cropped up repeatedly over the first 22 games. Gray lasted just 2 IP tonight, Hill has had outings of 2⅔ IP and 4⅓ IP, Bassitt 5 IP and 5⅓ IP, Graveman 4⅔ and 5⅓, Surkamp 4⅓ IP, 4⅔ IP, 4⅔ IP, and 5⅔ IP. It's putting a tremendous strain on the bullpen, which has been at the top of the league in innings pitched this month and cannot sustain this workload.
Essentially, the A's are cursed by the fact that they added so many quality relievers but in doing so broke camp with so many guys who give them zero roster flexibility. Would it be a worthwhile tradeoff to stash Dull, as good as he has been, at AAA waiting for the first injury and to call up a pitcher who can go long if needed? That pitcher could be, ironically, the much-maligned Surkamp, it could be other filler picked up off the scrap heap (as the A's nearly did with Miguel Gonzalez), or if you wanted to get creative it could even be Dillon Overton, whose innings need to be limited this season anyway as he returns from Tommy John surgery.
I have never advocated building a bullpen of seven short relievers and as good as the A's bullpen has been in April, the way the month has unfolded kind of explains why. Perhaps it's time to recalibrate.