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A’s bullpen looks nearly set after second round of spring cuts

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Only a couple questions remain

San Francisco Giants v Oakland Athletics
Jordan Weems is out of the running for Opening Day
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s made their second round of spring training cuts on Sunday, sending down nine players from MLB camp including reliever Jordan Weems. In addition, they lost reliever Nik Turley on waivers, then sent down infielder Jacob Wilson on Monday, and optioned catcher Austin Allen on Wednesday. That’s 12 names off the board, leaving 37 players in camp.

The cuts themselves were mostly routine, made up of young prospects and depth veterans who were never likely to make the Opening Day roster. However, the sheer reduction of quantity did provide some final answers for one area of the squad.

The bullpen isn’t fully decided yet, but the picture is much clearer now. A couple on-the-bubble candidates are gone in Turley and Weems, and the question is now turning more to what kinds of roles the A’s want in the pen rather than who is the singular best overall performer. There is also no longer the complication of options status for anyone who isn’t already a lock.

There are 18 pitchers remaining in spring camp. Five of them make up the MLB rotation, and one more starter will need to fill in for Mike Fiers in early April. For now let’s assume Daulton Jefferies gets that job. That leaves a dozen, for eight bullpen spots.

  • RHP Trevor Rosenthal
  • LHP Jake Diekman
  • RHP Yusmeiro Petit
  • RHP Sergio Romo
  • RHP J.B. Wendelken (out of options)
  • LHP Adam Kolarek
  • RHP Lou Trivino
  • RHP Burch Smith
  • LHP Reymin Guduan (non-roster)
  • RHP Deolis Guerra (non-roster)
  • LHP A.J. Puk (starter?)
  • LHP Cole Irvin (starter)

Barring some unforeseen circumstance like an injury in the next few days, the Opening Day bullpen will be made up of eight of those names. The top six are locks — the first four veterans can’t be sent down and you wouldn’t want to anyway, Wendelken is out of options, and Kolarek is their second lefty and he wasn’t acquired to play for Las Vegas.

(You might also reasonably consider Trivino a lock, but his remaining options and righty arm mean that technically he doesn’t have to be, and we’re keeping as open a mind as possible here. Personally I’m assuming he’ll make it, but we’ll get to my analysis later.)

That leaves six for two spots, and the rostered pitchers can all be optioned to Triple-A if desired. Looking at it straight-up, you could deduce Trivino and Smith get the spots, the two NRIs go to the minors, and the two spare starters go down as well to stay stretched out. (The minors don’t begin until May, but there could be alt-site scrimmages before then to play in).

However, this is where the conversation diverges away from who you think is the best pitcher, and into what the A’s might want out of these spots. There are two important questions remaining.

Do they want a long reliever?

One of the top story lines entering this season is what kinds of workloads starting rotations will be able to handle after the abbreviated 2020. And that’s before adding the context of an Oakland group that was already short on experience to begin with, and with quite a bit of injury history behind them — none have even thrown 190 innings in a season before, and their one reliable veteran is already hurt.

The rotation is high on talent, but a bit of insurance might not be a bad idea for the days when things go wrong, especially if they’re carrying a rookie like Jefferies who has recorded all of six outs in his major league career so far. If the A’s decide they need a long reliever in the pen to provide that escape valve, then there won’t be anything a short reliever can do to earn that final eighth bullpen spot.

Instead, we’d be looking at a sixth starter to serve as a swingman/longman. That would create a path for Puk or Irvin, or Jefferies if one of those other two gets the final rotation spot. Whether Puk’s 2021 destination is starting or relieving is still up in the air anyway, and manager Bob Melvin has at least mentioned the idea of Irvin relieving in interviews this spring.

Of course, Trivino and Smith aren’t necessarily short relievers. They’re both former starters who have shown the ability to work multiple frames with full effectiveness. We’ve seen Trivino dominate a playoff game for three innings, and on multiple occasions last summer we saw Smith tear through three frames like tissue paper. Choosing them doesn’t necessarily mean eschewing length entirely.

But there’s another level beyond just being able to go past three outs. If a rookie has a 2nd-inning meltdown and needs to be bailed out, or someone feels a pinch in the 1st and comes out as a precaution, then it’s nice to have a full backup starter on hand to take you through the 7th and preserve the rest of the pen.

NRI opt-outs?

It’s easy to forget about non-roster invitees, because we tend to assume they’re just here to be stashed in the minors for depth. But sometimes they have opt-out clauses in their contracts that force teams to make early decisions, like requiring that the player be on the Opening Day roster, or that they make the 40-man by June, or else they can elect free agency.

Indeed, the last NRI to make the A’s roster was Jordan Weems last year, and he had an opt-out clause that played a role. And it all worked out, because he ended up pitching well and is now part of the major league depth chart, though he was one of the odd men out on Sunday so he’ll have to wait for his turn later.

The problem is these clauses don’t often get reported until after they’ve made an impact, whether by being exercised or by being the explanation for why a player unexpectedly made the team.

Do Guduan or Guerra have opt-outs before Opening Day? Dunno. And if they do have opt-outs, will that be enough for the A’s to keep them under their long-established adherence to retaining as many players as possible? Neither has allowed a run this spring, in 10 innings combined. And even if the A’s want to keep them, would they even be able to create 40-man space to do so if nobody gets hurt this week?

If the answers to all of those questions are yes, for either Guduan and/or Guerra, then they could have a path to Opening Day. Otherwise, it’s difficult to see how they’d jump the line ahead of the rest of the candidate list, and much easier to see them stashing in Triple-A until later.

“I would be surprised if we didn’t see either one of these guys [Guduan or Guerra] at some point in time during the season,” said Melvin on Monday.

Hot takes

For now I’m sticking with my guesses of Trivino and Smith, but I’m not 100% confident. I could absolutely see them choosing a swingman and have partway talked myself into it, and in that case I’d go with Trivino and Irvin. Either way I’d be most surprised if Trivino doesn’t make it, and personally I’d like to see Puk get some reps in Triple-A (or alt-site scrimmages) because he got back from a one-year injury layoff exactly one week ago. What’s the rush?

As for the NRIs, for now I can’t do anything but assume they’ll open the year in Las Vegas, like most minor league free agent depth signings. Even if they do have opt-outs, at this time I don’t have specific reasons why they’re can’t-miss sleepers who must be kept at the expense of sending down Trivino — that doesn’t mean they aren’t, I’m just not aware of it yet if so. Here’s everything I know about them, including big velocity for the lefty and some past MLB success for the righty.

No matter what happens, there’s going to be unbelievable depth. A quick look at the chart, even after Nik Turley was DFA’d and Rule 5 pick Dany Jimenez was returned:

MLB roster candidates (eight spots)

  • RHP Trevor Rosenthal
  • LHP Jake Diekman
  • RHP Yusmeiro Petit
  • RHP Sergio Romo
  • RHP J.B. Wendelken (out of options)
  • LHP Adam Kolarek
  • RHP Lou Trivino
  • RHP Burch Smith
  • surplus starter LHP A.J. Puk
  • surplus starter LHP Cole Irvin

40-man roster, in Triple-A

  • RHP Jordan Weems
  • RHP Miguel Romero (No. 26 prospect)
  • surplus starter RHP James Kaprielian
  • surplus starter RHP Grant Holmes
  • and in Double-A, RHP Wandisson Charles (No. 21 prospect)

Triple-A, non-roster

  • LHP Reymin Guduan
  • RHP Deolis Guerra
  • RHP Matt Blackham
  • RHP Montana DuRapau
  • RHP Brian Schlitter
  • surplus starter RHP Paul Blackburn
  • surplus starter RHP Parker Dunshee
  • surplus starter RHP Brian Howard

Who do you think will get the final spots? Vote in the poll below! To simplify, let’s assume Trivino makes it, and just vote on the eighth spot.

Poll

Who do you think will get the 8th bullpen spot Opening Day? (Assuming Trivino 7th)

This poll is closed

  • 33%
    Burch Smith
    (145 votes)
  • 23%
    A.J. Puk
    (102 votes)
  • 38%
    Cole Irvin
    (164 votes)
  • 2%
    Reymin Guduan
    (12 votes)
  • 1%
    Deolis Guerra
    (6 votes)
429 votes total Vote Now