I’d have to go back and check, but I don’t know that the A’s bullpen gave up two three-run homers all year in 2014. Maybe, probably, but back-to-back days like we saw Saturday and Sunday? Doubtful. And of the six home runs allowed by the pitching staff over the first seven games, five of them have been hit off the relief corps. That’s not good.
Of all the trouble signs that emerged over the weekend in two dispiriting extra-inning losses to the Seattle Mariners, the performance of the bullpen is perhaps the most disturbing.
“We’re better than that,” said manager Bob Melvin.
But are they? Think about it. The A’s are without their closer, Sean Doolittle, whose return from a shoulder injury is still sketchy. Before Sunday’s game, Melvin said he didn’t know when Doolittle would get on a mound, and he offered up late May as a guess-timate regarding his return, but he wasn’t really basing it on any hard and fast evidence. If there’s still a shoulder tear in there, even a small one, the A’s have to brace for the possibility that even if Doolittle does return on the late-May timetable, there will be a question if that shoulder can hold up.
Last year’s two primary set-up men, Luke Gregerson and Ryan Cook, aren’t here. Gregerson left via free agency and Cook is in the minors trying to figure out some serious mechanical issues.
Hence, everyone else is being pushed back into roles where they may not be quite as comfortable. Tyler Clippard, a very good setup man in Washington, is closing. Eric O’Flaherty and Dan Otero are pitching later in the game than they normally do, and in O’Flaherty’s case, even though he is in his second season following Tommy John surgery, he still isn’t showing the kind of explosive stuff he possessed that he had in Atlanta before the injury.
Fernando Abad, a situational lefty, is being asked to pitch to lefties and righties. Evan Scribner couldn’t make this bullpen a year ago, and R.J. Alvarez is a hard-throwing young guy who is just getting his feet wet as a major-leaguer. Jesse Chavez is the long guy, probably more suited to starting than relieving, but he may be pressed into seventh- and eighth-inning service if the problems continue.
So right now, it’s tough to say they’re “better than that.” Maybe better than what we’ve seen so far, but perhaps not good enough without Doolittle and an effective Cook.
The A’s had bullpen issues out of the gate last season, mostly with Jim Johnson, but Melvin and Co. were able to work around Johnson because of the depth of the pen. That depth isn’t there this year, nor is the experience or the quality. After a week, you have to give this group the benefit of the doubt that they can, as Clippard said, “clean some things up.”
We’ll learn more on this upcoming road trip, for sure.