The Athletics lost ace Frankie Montas to an 80-game performance-enhancing drug suspension last week, but the team nonetheless seems more focused on improving its bullpen than its starting staff as the July 31 trade deadline nears.
Speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser on the A’s Plus podcast Monday, general manager David Forst said, in part, “I think the bullpen is probably the first place we look, not because we don’t like the group we have here but because it’s been less consistent than it was last year – which was inevitable.”
The A’s bullpen managed a 3.80 ERA/3.89 FIP a year ago, though the figures have risen to 4.32/4.09 this season as closer Blake Treinen has taken steps backward. Treinen posted a jaw-dropping 0.78 ERA across 80 1/3 innings in 2018, but the number has shot to 4.08 over 35 1/3 frames this season, and the rest of his production has also gone in a discouraging direction. Adding injury to insult, the 30-year-old went to the shelf over the weekend with a shoulder issue.
Treinen’s decline aside, the Athletics have also gotten worse bottom-line production from fellow relievers Lou Trivino, J.B. Wendelken and Ryan Buchter in comparison to last season. Moreover, they lost important 2018 contributors in Jeurys Familia, Shawn Kelley and Fernando Rodney. Familia left for the Mets in free agency, Kelley signed with the Rangers, and Rodney got off to such a horrendous start this year that the Athletics released him at the end of May. And free-agent signing Joakim Soria – whom the A’s gave $15MM to help replace Familia and Kelley – has accounted for a disappointing 4.93 ERA through 34 2/3 innings, though his peripherals indicate it’s way too soon to write off the long-effective veteran.
In better news for the A’s, 2018-19 bullpen innings king Yusmeiro Petit is largely the same pitcher he was last year. While Petit has met expectations, no A’s reliever has been better than Liam Hendriks, who went from outrighted off their roster last July to pitching in a key role down the stretch a year ago. Hendriks has carried that momentum into this season, evidenced by a near-spotless 1.12 ERA/2.39 FIP in 40 1/3 innings.
Petit, Hendriks & Co. are still in obvious need of complements, which is something the A’s may be able to find both in and out of the organization in the coming weeks. Left-handed prospect A.J. Puk and righty Jharel Cotton could impact the team’s bullpen down the stretch. Puk’s on the mend from April 2018 Tommy John surgery, while Cotton underwent a TJ procedure in March 2018 and is now fighting back from a recent hamstring surgery. Even if the A’s expect late-year contributions from Puk and Cotton, though, they could still scour the trade market for help. There are plenty of relievers who figure to wind up on the move before July’s out, with the Giants’ Will Smith, Tony Watson and Sam Dyson, the Padres’ Kirby Yates, the White Sox’s Alex Colome, the Tigers’ Shane Greene and the Orioles’ Mychal Givens among an even larger group of potential trade pieces.
A beefed-up bullpen would take pressure off Oakland’s Montas-less rotation, which doesn’t necessarily look as if it’s primed to welcome outside acquisitions.
“You add a starter toward the end of July, there’s a limited number of appearances you’re talking about,” Forst told Slusser. “Not that I wouldn’t consider adding a starting pitcher but the cost in both dollars and player capital is typically high that time of year for starting pitching. So you have to balance that with the impact a reliever can make more often with the impact the guys from within the organization can make.”
Even with a breakout 90 innings from Montas, this hasn’t been a lights-out statistical year for the A’s starting staff. Mike Fiers, Brett Anderson, Chris Bassitt and Tanner Anderson have prevented runs at acceptable rates over a combined 243 frames. However, the peripherals of Fiers, Anderson and Bassitt portend trouble, and Anderson has a meager three starts and 15 innings to this point. Oakland does have one or two impactful reinforcements on the way, though, including prized lefty prospect Jesus Luzardo. The 21-year-old Luzardo, who’s on the comeback trail from a shoulder strain, could finally make his major league debut in early July, per Martin Gallegos of MLB.com. On the other hand, No. 1 2018 starter Sean Manaea – who hasn’t pitched since undergoing left shoulder surgery last September – is now dealing with right side soreness.
With Luzardo and Manaea still unavailable at the moment, the A’s could recall Daniel Mengden or Paul Blackburn from Triple-A Las Vegas, according to Slusser, who writes southpaw Wei-Chung Wang’s “a strong possibility” to function as an opener against lefty-heavy lineups. Those aren’t the most exciting options, but if we’re to believe Forst, the A’s seem OK with the starting choices they have on hand.