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The best Oakland A’s closers come from the unlikeliest places

Why buy one when you can make your own?

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are probably going to lose Liam Hendriks this winter. It’s not official yet, as he hasn’t actually signed with another team, but he’s no longer under contract with the A’s and he’ll probably cost more than they can afford. We all know how this usually goes when Oakland’s stars hit the open market.

And Hendriks is most certainly a star. He was the AL Reliever of the Year in 2020, and he probably should have been in 2019 as well. There’s no real argument to be made against him as the best reliever in the majors right now, and he’s played a huge role in the A’s recent success. On a team that won its division and earned the No. 2 seed in the AL, Hendriks was the only player to garner MVP votes (and the only AL reliever to get any Cy Young votes).

This will be a tough loss for Oakland, and there’s not really any singular thing they can do to replace Hendriks. Even splurging on another expensive star would surely yield a downgrade from HercuLiam’s historic dominance — heck, Hendriks himself probably can’t 100% repeat what he’s already done, even if he stays awesome.

No amount of money can buy you another Hendriks, and overspending on established relievers is a fool’s game anyway. After all, Hendriks himself was such an unexpected breakout that he was DFA’d in 2018, cleared waivers, fought his way back to the bigs, started a playoff game that fall, and then was an All-Star by the following summer. And he only rose to the 9th-inning role because the guy before him, Blake Treinen, vanished as suddenly as he had appeared, turning from a trade castoff to an All-Star to a non-tender in the span of two years.

You can keep going back through A’s history in similar fashion. Their closer in 2014 used to be a first baseman, their closer in 2012-13 was originally signed as a setup man, and their closers in 2009-11 and 2005-08 got the job as rookies and each won Rookie of the Year.

Their closer in 2003 had been demoted to setup by another team the previous year, their closer in 2002 used to be a literal goat, their closer in 2000-01 was a busted starter converted to relief, and their closer from 1996-99 made his MLB debut at age 32.

Their closer from 1987-95 was a washed-up starter in his mid/late-30s, who moved to the bullpen and ended up winning a Cy Young, an MVP, a World Series ring, and a spot in the Hall of Fame.

Eight of the 11 pitchers referenced above made All-Star teams while in Oakland (plus a ninth I didn’t mention), and one of the others got a pair of midsummer nods later in another uniform. That’s how the A’s have gotten their star closers for the last three decades, almost non-stop with only a couple brief gaps while they unearthed the next gem. Here’s a deeper look at the timeline.

  • 2019-20: **Liam Hendriks**, who had been DFA’d the previous summer
  • 2017-19: **Blake Treinen**, acquired as castoff after losing closer job with old team
  • 2017: Santiago Casilla, a pricey free agent at 2yr/$11m
  • 2016: Ryan Madson, a pricey free agent at 3yr/$22m
  • 2015: Tyler Clippard, a pricey arbitration acquisition at 1yr/$8m
  • 2014: **Sean Doolittle**, a 1B prospect they converted to pitching
  • 2014: Jim Johnson, a pricey arbitration acquisition at 1yr/$10m
  • 2012-13: **Grant Balfour**, a mid-priced free agent at 2yr/$8m (option picked up, making it 3yr/$12m)
  • 2012: **Ryan Cook**, a rookie
  • 2011: Brian Fuentes, a pricey free agent at 2yr/$11m
  • 2009-11: **Andrew Bailey**, a rookie
  • 2008-09: Brad Ziegler, a rookie, signed out of independent league
  • 2005-08: Huston Street, a rookie
  • 2004-05: Octavio Dotel, a mid-priced rental acquisition
  • 2004: Arthur Rhodes, a pricey free agent at 3yr/$9m
  • 2003: **Keith Foulke**, acquired in buy-low trade after off-year
  • 2002: Billy Koch, acquired in buy-low trade after off-year
  • 1999-2001: **Jason Isringhausen**, acquired in buy-low trade as castoff
  • 1996-99: Billy Taylor, just a guy they found in the minors, who debuted in 1994 and then missed all of ‘95 to injury.
  • 1987-95: **Dennis Eckersley**, acquired in buy-low trade after off-year

The ones with **asterisks** were All-Stars for Oakland. (Street was also an All-Star later for San Diego.) The ones in italics were so ineffective that they were DFA’d or otherwise unceremoniously dumped via trade; notice that all of them were pricey additions with established track records.

That’s not to say that spending money can’t work. Clippard and Madson were fine, and Balfour was affordable but not free. Dotel was alright before getting hurt. When Street missed time to injury in 2007, Balfour-level free agent signing Alan Embree filled in admirably. And we haven’t even mentioned quality setup men who weren’t asked to become closers, like Yusmeiro Petit and Joakim Soria.

But throwing gobs of cash at the problem is far from the only solution, and finding someone with a track record isn’t always necessary in such an inherently volatile field. Eckersley, Taylor, Isringhausen, Street, Ziegler, Bailey, Cook, Balfour, Doolittle, and Hendriks all had no experience (or virtually none) as MLB closers, but the A’s stuck them there and they all turned out somewhere between good and Hall of Famer, with an average rating of All-Star. Some were failed starters who moved to the pen, others were setup men who rose up to the 9th inning, and still others were rookies who got thrust directly into the fire.

Sure, a few of the success stories did cost some money. Treinen, Clippard, Foulke, and Koch were all buy-lows, but they were already into arbitration and earning at least a few million each. But Foulke’s salary was mostly offset by swapping Koch for him, and Clippard’s was mostly canceled out by the player he was traded for, so those were budgetary shuffles that didn’t greatly affect the net payroll. And Treinen was cheaper than the guys he was traded for (Doo and Madson), so that was still a cost-cutting move. Dotel eventually made some money but could have been cut after 2004 (before his final arbitration year in 2005) if he hadn’t worked out.

The only successes they really spent outright money on, without some other angle to the move that saved on the other side, were Madson, Balfour, and Koch. Everyone else was either a salvage job paid for by a larger maneuver, or a complete do-it-yourself creation out of an at-home Build Your Own Closer kit. And more than one-third of the time that they spent any money at all on someone to specifically be the new closer, pretty much anything above league minimum, it failed spectacularly.

2021 A’s

Where does that leave us moving forward? With Hendriks gone, and Soria and Petit also free agents (and in their late-30s anyway), the 9th inning in Oakland needs a revamp.

It wouldn’t be a bad idea to sign someone. Last winter they paid a little bit to keep Jake Diekman and it turned out well, as he had his own breakout year armed with a new weaponized slider.

But perhaps there’s no need to rush out and pay a premium for a Closer™. After all, anyone could be the next Hendriks, who was himself the next Treinen, who was sort of like the next Balfour, and so on. Maybe it’s Diekman, who only allowed one earned run all last season. Maybe it’s the next guy who signs this winter for a reasonable 2yr/$7m like Diekman did.

Maybe it’s someone else who’s already here, like J.B. Wendelken, or Burch Smith, or Jordan Weems, who were all good last year. Maybe Lou Trivino makes the adjustment that takes his top-notch stuff back to its prime 2018 form. Maybe prospects Miguel Romero or Wandisson Charles burst onto the scene, or Triple-A starters Daulton Jefferies or James Kaprielian or Grant Holmes find homes in the pen, or one of the minor league depth signings pans out like Domingo Acevedo or Matt Blackham or Montana DuRapau.

The point isn’t that the next superstar closer is already in the organization. It’s that the chance of it being one of those in-house names, or some modest free agent setup man, is just as likely as it being someone who was great in 2021 and costs a ton of money.

The other point is to not worry too much. The A’s might go into the supposedly contending season with a 9th-inning plan that feels dubious, but one of two things will happen. Either it will work, or it won’t work and they’ll quickly replace it with something that works better. Sure, it could take time to concoct the final formula, but Hendriks didn’t record his first save in 2019 until late-June and they still won 97 games. They almost always find someone, and he usually makes the All-Star team at least once.

There are enough talented lotto tickets in the current mix that at least one of them can probably be an effective MLB closer, and Oakland has historically been excellent at identifying who the jackpots will be. I’d love to re-sign Hendriks, but at the same time, I’m excited to sit back and see what new hidden gem the A’s can uncover.