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A’s don’t have an expensive new closer after all

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Trevor Rosenthal will miss at least half the season. Where does that leave the bullpen?

2021 Oakland Athletics Photo Day
We don’t have a single photo in our databases of Rosenthal throwing a pitch in an A’s jersey
Photo by Robert Beck/MLB Photos via Getty Images

The Oakland A’s don’t always pay big bucks for a proven closer, but they did this winter. They dropped $11 million on Trevor Rosenthal, which was so much that they don’t even really have it — they put it on the proverbial credit card and will pay it off over three years.

As it turns out, Rosenthal won’t throw a pitch for at least the first half of the season. He felt numbness and pain during spring training, and underwent thoracic outlet surgery on Thursday to remove a rib. The first checkup with the doctor is eight weeks out and recovery time considered to take three months minimum.

That doesn’t mean he’s out for the year, as mathematically he could return late in the summer. But when you start the bidding at a half-season from day one, then from a roster-building standpoint you’ve entered the territory where you need to assume the player is out of the picture and any comeback down the road is a bonus. It only takes one extra setback to turn three months into four or six.

That might be the most stunning part of what has been a nightmare 2021 so far. The A’s finally found a way to make a bad one-year contract. Usually such pacts are no-risk because they come off the books at the end of the summer, so if they don’t work then it’s all in the past. But this time, they’ll get little to nothing now and will keep paying for it two more years.

But sometimes a good plan goes awry. It’s not Rosenthal’s fault he got hurt, much less at that moment. It was a reasonable win-now gamble by a team whose fans were screaming at them to spend money immediately, to nab a hot player who fit the roster perfectly. I don’t like spending on relievers, but I was fine with trying it in this specific situation. And deferring the money was apparently what they needed to get it done.

This isn’t an I-told-you-so article, it’s a “Seriously?!” plea. Because I mean, seriously? The signing was bold but it wasn’t reckless or foolish, and it was favorably reviewed by analysts.

But the A’s only win their modest gambles, never their expensive ones. That just seems to be a rule of the baseball universe, from extensions for Eric Chavez and Khris Davis, to free agent splurges on Billy Butler and Ben Sheets, to the pricey acquisition of Jim Johnson’s salary. The highest they can go and have it sometimes work well is the Scott Kazmir, Ryan Madson, Rich Hill, Joakim Soria, Matt Joyce level, in the mid/high seven-figures for 1-3 years. The cosmic threshold is best illustrated by control subject Coco Crisp, who was a star at seven-figures but then signed a heftier extension and got hurt before it even kicked in.

Meanwhile, the free lotto tickets work out all the time. Rule 5 pick Mark Canha is a star now, every year brings a minor league free agent breakout (welcome back, Jed Lowrie), and they can create league-average starting pitchers at will from the waiver wire! They just can’t buy nice things.

Fortunately, and particularly relevant in this current situation, the one position the A’s are able to consistently figure out on the cheap is their closer. Year after year they plug in a cast-off or a buy-low or just elevate the previous year’s setup man, and when one plan doesn’t work out they’ve usually discovered their next All-Star in a matter of weeks. Three decades of uninterrupted success in this department stops being a fluke and becomes a pattern of competence by the front office.

The optimal situation would be for Rosenthal to be healthy and deliver his best Liam Hendriks impression, but that’s not how 2021 is going to go. So where are we instead? Here’s the current MLB bullpen.

  • LHP Jake Diekman
  • RHP Lou Trivino
  • RHP Yusmeiro Petit
  • RHP Sergio Romo
  • LHP Adam Kolarek
  • RHP J.B. Wendelken
  • RHP Jordan Weems
  • RHP Deolis Guerra

The top of the list has some obvious candidates. Diekman was tabbed as the likely closer before Rosenthal signed, and Romo has extensive experience in the 9th inning. Trivino was once a rising late-inning star and is officially putting himself back in the conversation with a dominant start so far this year. Wendelken and Weems have long been breakout candidates here at Athletics Nation and it wouldn’t be any crazier to see one of them rise up than it was to see Hendriks do it just months after he was DFA’d.

Or maybe the next star closer is still down in Triple-A, in the form of righty Miguel Romero, who ranks No. 26 on our Community Prospect List.

Whoever it might be, the important part is there’s an overwhelming chance that it’s somebody who’s already in the organization. There are enough quality arms for one of them to hit the jackpot, and the team’s track record in this area has reached a point where that’s not even an idealistic hope anymore but rather the statistically highly likely result. And with any luck, Rosenthal himself will return down the stretch to help out.

The A’s don’t have an expensive new closer after all, and that’s OK. They’ve never needed one to win before.