Oakland: A Bullpen In Flux

by Eno Sarris //

Since about a third of opening day closers lose their jobs to injury or poor play every year, it’s not the greatest position in which to invest heavily. Instead, waiting to the end of the draft and using the quantity-not-quality approach to supplement an elite closer can provide the best return on investment. Mix the risk in your closer portfolio, in other words. This spring, we’re seeing the merits of this approach already.

In Oakland, Andrew Bailey saw Dr. James Andrews on Tuesday, and though it’s just a right forearm strain, he is known to be slightly frail. The former starter and ROY had Tommy John surgery in 2005 and only managed 49 innings last year because of an intercostal strain and some elbow surgery to get rid of loose bodies in the joint. Add the current forearm strain in, and he is a substantial injury risk.

Fuentes.jpgThat is, perhaps, why the Athletics stocked up on bullpen talent last year despite having a strong bullpen in 2010. Brian Fuentes has managed to put up more than 20 saves in each of the last six years, but comes with some flaws of his own. He’s an extreme fly-ball pitcher (33.5% career GB) who doesn’t do as well against righties as he does against similar-handed pitchers (11.34 K/9, 2.86 BB/9 versus lefties, 9.24 K/9, 4.16 BB/9 against righties).

Fellow new acquisition Grant Balfour will figure in the mix somehow if Bailey goes down for an extended period of time. Since he’s a righty, Balfour could contribute some saves as part of a platoon (10.10 K/9, 4.11 BB/9 versus righties). But Balfour, despite the unfortunate last name, is also pretty good against lefties (10.48 K/9, 4.51 BB/9), and if the team can stomach his occasional control blips, he might be the closer all by his lonesome.

Last year, five pitchers accrued saves for the Athletics, and Michael Wuertz was second to Bailey with six. If the 35-year old Fuentes declines further (he used to put up strikeout rates closer to ten than to eight) or the inconsistent Balfour can’t find the zone, Wuertz may again put up some saves. Either way, it’s likely that another half-dozen Oakland pitchers will accrue saves in 2011.

We all have to chase the save, and yet it’s the only stat that usually rewards a specific role on each team. Since pitchers are already more likely to get hurt than position players, and the closer role is so volatile on it’s own, it’s a good idea to spread your risk around as much as possible. Sure, get a stud closer early on, but then mitigate your risk late by taking fliers on pitchers like Fuentes and Balfour. If it doesn’t work out, you didn’t spend much on them, and then you can easily drop them for the next pitcher that starts accruing saves.

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