Last winter, the Oakland A's set about revamping their bullpen. They did so by spending big, both in terms of free agent dollars and trade capital, and they put together an impressive list of names. I fully supported the shopping spree then and I still do now, because fixing the relief corps was an absolute necessity but also because it had to happen immediately. The 2015 pen was so bad that, if they wanted any serious shot at competing in 2016, they needed to bite the bullet and pay extra for the deluxe version. There wasn't time to spend months picking through the waiver wire, looking for seven new gems through trial-and-error.
That was a somewhat unique situation, though. Most teams don't need to do such a complete overhaul, and if they do then they're probably rebuilding and aren't hoping to compete right away -- that gives them the luxury of time to identify the next cheap up-and-comers rather than paying for veterans with expensive track records. And in general, that's how I prefer to find bullpen talent, because relievers are by far the most volatile performers in the game. The extra dollars might give you more name power but you could easily have just as much success filling that last spot with the most exciting guy in your Triple-A pen.
Even within this group of 2016 Oakland relievers, whose acquisitions I fully supported, you can see this phenomenon clearly. The A's spent $5.5 million on set-up man John Axford, but he has been outperformed handily by $1 million man Fernando Rodriguez, who is a similar high-octane righty. They gave Ryan Madson a three-year contract and he's now their adequate closer, but their best arm and go-to guy has been rookie Ryan Dull, a former 32nd-round draft pick pitching on the minimum salary. They cashed in on Jesse Chavez in a trade for 2015 standout Liam Hendriks, but the Aussie just recently got his ERA below 5.00 after a terrible start and waiver pickup Andrew Triggs could have filled his spot. And while lefty Marc Rzepczynski has been perfectly solid, there's no good reason to pay him $3 million when Daniel Coulombe provides similar quality for only $500K.
Again, this doesn't mean I'm invoking hindsight on the offseason. The A's may have been better off with these four cheaper relievers and some extra money/trade chips to spend elsewhere, but there was no way to know which four relievers would pan out -- and even then Rodriguez and Triggs are currently on the DL, making them technically less useful than Axford and Hendriks at the moment. Diamond hunting is great when you only have one or two spots to fill on the cheap, but when it's a full tear-down it's not a bad idea to invest early in the foundation and then build your cheap depth around it. But now that the crisis has passed, it's time to get back to business as usual, and Coulombe is a great example of how the A's should fill their pen next year.
The rise of Daniel Coulombe
The A's picked up the left-handed Coulombe last September in a quiet DFA pickup from the Dodgers. He pitched a few games for Oakland's beleaguered pen that month but didn't do anything noteworthy. He looked like a simple depth piece, and perhaps that's really what he was at that point. After all, the A's DFA'd him in November, eventually retaining him when nobody else picked him up.
But something has happened in 2016. Stop me if you've heard this one before: he added a cutter to his pitch repertoire, replacing an oft-used changeup (he also throws a 4-seam, slider, and curve). He's throwing the cutter 10% of the time, and according to FanGraphs' pitch values it has been by far his best offering. Check out the differences in his Triple-A numbers:
Coulombe, 2015 AAA: 3.27 ERA, 41⅓ ip, 41 Ks, 24 BB, 35 hits, 1 HR, 3.82 FIP
Coulombe, 2016 AAA: 1.08 ERA, 25 ip, 35 Ks, 6 BB, 18 hits, 0 HR, 1.70 FIP
The strikeouts skyrocketed, and the walks and hits plummeted. There could of course be other factors -- this is the 26-year-old's second year at Triple-A and he could have benefited from experience, there could be park factors, or whatever else. But the bottom line is that he appears to have elevated himself from being an expendable taxi reliever to being an actual keeper. After all, his minor league success is translating into real MLB production:
Coulombe, 2016 MLB: 3.80 ERA, 21⅓ ip, 19 Ks, 7 BB, 18 hits, 4 HR, 4.79 FIP
That adds up to a 110 ERA+ and 0.3 bWAR, which are excellent marks for the fifth or six guy in the pen. He even notched a legit highlight against the Astros on Wednesday, facing a still-surmountable 3-0 deficit in the 7th -- after a leadoff walk and then an E-6 by his defense, he found himself with runners on second and third with no outs. Rather than cave and allow a rally, or even a sac fly, he bore down and struck out powerful lefties Luis Valbuena and Colby Rasmus before dispatching a pinch-hitter to quash the threat.
That was a gutsy performance, and it's exactly what you want to see out of a reliever. It doesn't matter if he gets himself into trouble, is gifted a tough situation by his defense (as in this case), or inherits the runners outright from another pitcher. Relievers were once called firemen for a reason, and it's because the good ones put out these kinds of blazes more often than not. Now we have our first* memorable data point in Coulombe's favor, with reason (both statistical and scouting-related) to believe there could be more to come. And Oakland's factory churns out another quality arm from common household items.
The A's were backed into a corner last winter and had to spend on their bullpen, but now it's time to get back to more creative options like Coulombe. Looking forward, Madson and Axford are good bets to still be here next year, along with Sean Doolittle, Dull, Rodriguez, Hendriks, Coulombe, and Triggs. After them there are still several more intriguing lotto tickets in the minors, guys like Patrick Schuster, J.B. Wendelken, and Tucker Healy. Even if you account for some attrition -- someone gets used as a trade sweetner, a couple guys get hurt, one of the lotto tickets gets his shot in September and flames out -- Oakland shouldn't need to spend any of its limited resources on further relief help before next April. All they need to do is keep an eye out for the next few gems off the scrap heap to supplement their strong core, and keep the line moving.
After all, it's a whole lot more difficult to employ that strategy in any other area of the team, and 2015 aside the A's have proven adept over the years at identifying the Coulombes of the world.
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* Actually, that was his second big performance. Coulombe had another highlight moment against the Mariners in May. He entered with a 2-1 deficit, two on, one out, and retired Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz to end the threat and keep Oakland close. Then he came back and tossed another 1-2-3 inning. On the downside, he blew a lead against the Astros in June on a 6th-inning solo homer by Evan Gattis, who is coincidentally the hitter who was pinch-hit for (due to injury) in the highlight video above.