Concerns over bullpen issues downplayed by A’s

Jim Johnson is the likely closer for the A's Sunday should one be needed.

Jim Johnson is the likely closer for the A’s Sunday should one be needed.

For a team that came into the season with the consensus best bullpen in the big leagues, the A’s have had more than their share of rocky moments in the first three weeks of the season.

Overall the base number isn’t bad, a cumulative 2.67 ERA, which ranks first among the American League bullpens. Nothing to complain about there.

But relievers have taken six of the club’s nine losses. The bullpen has more blown saves (six) than saves (five). And the man who had opened as the closer, Jim Johnson, is now in a closer-by-committee setup with Luke Gregerson and Sean Doolittle.

And the trio of Johnson, Gregerson and Doolittle, thought along with Dan Otero to be the main men at the back end of games for the A’s have a nasty 4.84 ERA.

The reason the team bullpen ERA is so low is that Fernando Abad, Ryan Cook, Otero, Drew Pomeranz and (briefly) Evan Scribner have combined to allow four earned runs in 42.1 innings for a jaw-dropping ERA of 0.85.

Three weeks into the season, pitching coach Curt Young isn’t ready to say the numbers for Johnson, Gregerson and Doolittle mean much of anything.

“There is so much quality and so much experience out there,’’ Young said Sunday morning. “The guys have a feel for what they’re doing. We really feel good about everybody we bring in to win a game.

Young said the talk about the A’s having the best bullpen wasn’t unwarranted. He did say that different personnel last year to this year has played a factor.

“It will all fall into play as we go along,’’ Young said.

Part of the falling into place will come when the club settles on a closer. The A’s made their bullpen work the last two years by having six or seven relievers each knowing what their role was. Now that any of three or four men can wind up pitching the ninth inning with a lead, that’s no longer true.

Manager Bob Melvin downplays the issue of players knowing their roles. He said that while roles will change from day to day depending on which relievers are rest and the challenges presented by the opponent, lines of communication are left open.

“Any time your bullpen absorbs some losses it means you are playing some close games. We are playing some games when we’re not, too. And some of the close games we’re losing, and we’re not used to that. The past couple of years we’ve won most of those games late and so we are off to a little bit of a slow start as far as that goes.

“It’s not like they don’t know (the roles). We’re pretty communicative on a day-to-day basis. It might not be like it is where you set your roles early in the season and you don’t have another discussion with them because they know what’s going on. We try to be as communication on a day-by-day basis to try to combat that.’’

The fact that the A’s have the best record (15-9, tied with Texas) in the American League mitigates some of the problems the bullpen has had. On the other hand, performances more in keeping with expectations would, presumably, have the A’s with a comfortable lead in the AL West heading into Sunday.

Expectations are one thing. Performance is another, as Melvin is the first to point out.

“The good thing is we have really good depth down there,’’ the manager said. “Now the game is not played out on paper, but on paper we still do have a very talented bullpen and a lot of depth.’’

Oakland may need that depth Sunday. Starter Tommy Milone has not yet thrown more than six innings in any of his three starts. And Melvin said a couple of the relievers may not be available Sunday. On that list could be Doolittle and Gregerson, both of whom pitched both Friday and Saturday.

If that’s the case, Jim Johnson becomes the de facto closer and the righty-lefty setup for the late innings falls to Otero and Abad. And based on their respective performances so far (0.73 and 0.00), that’s not a bad thing.

John Hickey

A longtime baseball writer three years into in his second go-round covering to the Oakland A's beat after a dozen years covering the Seattle Mariners. Covered the A's through the late 1980s and 1990s.