The Oakland A’s signed relief pitcher Santiago Casilla last week, adding another proven veteran arm to a bullpen that was already strong. Casilla wasn’t among my most preferred targets on the market — I listed him in this roundup in the “Meh” section. But he’s also far from a bad choice, considering he was a closer the last few seasons and he holds three championship rings. To put his contract into context, it’s the same as what Marc Rzepczynski got from the Mariners this winter to be a LOOGY.
The most intriguing thing about Casilla’s recent history as a closer, though, is just how common that trait has become in Oakland’s pen. With his arrival, the A’s now have four relievers who have served as closers within the last couple years:
- Sean Doolittle: He’s actually the least recent, as he was last a full-time closer in 2014 (not to mention an All-Star). Injuries have limited his opportunity since then, but he’s still been sharp when protecting late leads.
- Ryan Madson: He’s the incumbent A’s closer, though most of us would feel best about him as a setup man. He converted 33-of-40 leads last year, which is fine — not great, not bad.
- John Axford: He was the Rockies’ closer for most of 2015, just before coming to the A’s. His 9th-inning days are surely over, but at his peak he led the NL in saves just six seasons ago. His fastball still averages 96 mph, highest on the team.
- Santiago Casilla: He was the Giants’ closer on and off for the last five years, and more or less permanently since mid-2014. He was the closer for a championship squad in ‘14, and in his postseason career he’s allowed two runs in 19⅔ innings (0.92) while converting every lead he’s been given (4 saves, 4 holds, 0 blown). Last year he recorded 31 saves for a playoff team, albeit at such a poor rate that he lost the job toward the end.
Granted, in terms of former closers that’s a relatively motley crew. I can’t even tell you that I’m confident about any specific one of them pitching the 9th this season. But whoever it is, he won’t be debuting in the role — he’ll at least have experience to look back on. And the rest of them won’t have to pitch the 9th, which means they can become strong middle/setup guys instead of shaky closers. Their career numbers (starting with saves, holds, blown saves, and overall success rate thereof):
Relievers can also earn a win in a technical save situation, but I left those out — it’s unnecessarily confusing, the difference is almost unnoticeable in the bigger picture, and by definition it has to happen in a weird early-game situation. The stat on the right (IS%) is percent of Inherited Runners Scored.
In the current MLB landscape, relievers have become a premium commodity. Teams are paying enormous value, either in trade or in free agent years/dollars, to put elite arms in as many late innings as possible. And here are the A’s, as usual, doing the intriguingly cheap version of it and adding value on the margins.
There’s no 9th-inning stud, but the long line of competent options means that someone else’s recent closer will be pitching the 6th or 7th inning for Oakland. Maybe you allow a couple extra walk-offs because the 9th isn’t airtight, but along the way you make up for it in a couple games you don’t lose in the middle innings because you had Casilla pitching instead of the proverbial Edward Mujica or J.B. Wendelken. That’s ... not exciting, but satisfyingly effective.
And the best part? The A’s two best relievers might not actually be listed in this quartet.
Ryan Dull was phenomenal last year: he shouldered a huge workload, posted a sparkling ERA and K/BB, set a record for stranding inherited runners, and converted 18-of-21 save/hold chances. His 2.2 bWAR ranked Top 20 among all MLB relievers (though fWAR wasn’t as impressed).
Meanwhile, Liam Hendriks quietly led A’s relievers in fWAR last season after recovering from an early-season injury. He returned from the DL in mid-June, and in 42 games the rest of the way he put up a 2.23 ERA and four Ks per walk. Over the last two seasons combined, he ranks 14th among MLB relievers in total fWAR (2.8).
Dull + Hendriks, 2016: 139 ip, 144 Ks, 29 BB, 16 HR, 28-for-32 Sv/Hold (87.5%)
So the A’s have four recent closers, and those two guys, all at the cost of around $22.8 million and with no contractual commitment past 2018. That’s not much more than the top two guys got on their own: Aroldis Chapman ($17M/yr) and Kenley Jansen ($16M/yr), both on five-year deals with opt-out clauses. Casilla’s replacement in San Francisco, Mark Melancon, is getting over $15M/yr for four years (plus an opt-out).
We still have more than a month to get into the specifics and debate who we think should be the A’s actual closer on Opening Day, and it’s still possible someone could be traded away in the time being. But before we get to all that, let’s take a moment to appreciate the group that the A’s have quietly put together. They were already a top-10 unit last year, they’re returning all their best arms, and they just added another closer to pitch some middle/setup innings.
Now they just have to build some leads to protect. Go go gadget Plouffe bomb?