As the Oakland A’s kept adding to their relief corps last summer amid a surprising run to the playoffs, it was clear they valued disaster-proofing their thriving bullpen over hemorrhaging assets to shore up a thin rotation.
Oakland brought in well-established relievers Fernando Rodney, Shawn Kelley and Jeurys Familia between July and August, adding to a group already anchored by Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino. The only starter the A’s added during that period was Mike Fiers.
After finishing the regular season with a 3.37 ERA, though, Oakland’s bullpen fell apart an American League Wild Card game defeat to the Yankees. Relievers were responsible for every run allowed in the 7-2 loss.
Following that playoff disappointment, Oakland’s front office has continued to load up on bullpen arms and leave its starting rotation alone. It signed veteran closer Joakim Soria to a two-year, $15 million deal on Thursday before sending embattled middle-reliever Emilio Pagan to Tampa Bay in a three-way trade that netted utility player Jurickson Profar.
Those moves should be applauded, even if they didn’t address the team’s most obvious need.
Relievers propelled the A’s to a playoff berth this past season while the entire Opening Day rotation wound up on the disabled list, so it makes sense for the franchise to stick with its bullpen-centric approach and not overreact to a one-off dud against the Yankees. When examining market valuations for starters and relievers — and remembering the free agent deals struck late last offseason — Oakland’s approach gains further credence.
Soria, 34, has posted an ERA below 4.00 in five of the past six seasons, including a 3.12 mark in 2018. He’s also struck out more than a batter per inning in his career.
With Soria in the organization, the A’s now have a clear replacement for Familia, a half-season rental who recently signed with the Mets. Soria will likely join a late-inning bullpen core consisting of Treinen and Trivino, and his experience as both a closer and set-up man gives manager Bob Melvin the ability to rotate him through various roles without worrying he might disrupt the right-hander.
“We’re thrilled to have him,” A’s general manager David Forst said on a conference call. “He fits in really well, a guy with a ton of closing experience, he went to Milwaukee and pitched in a number of different roles. As I’ve said, we need to get 27 outs a night, and we’re going to find some creative ways to do it.”
Soria’s acquisition coincided with the Angels signing starting pitchers Matt Harvey and Trevor Cahill to one-year contracts of $9 million and $11 million, respectively. Those right-handers could have been brought in by Oakland to add depth to the rotation, but Harvey has not recorded an ERA below 4.80 since 2015 and was involved in numerous off-field controversies with the Mets, while Cahill pitched brilliantly last year in Oakland but has been up-and-down throughout his career.
The A’s will likely bring in some sort of starting rotation help in the coming months. It’s unlikely ace Sean Manaea will be able to pitch given his shoulder problems, and there is little clarity behind him. Stopgaps from the past year like Fiers and Edwin Jackson are no longer under team control.
Forst said Oakland has been “in on all these conversations” with free agent starters and has engaged in trade talks for starting pitching.
Several teams waited past February to address pitching needs last offseason before landing targets late. Right-hander Lance Lynn, for example, signed a one-year, $12 million deal with the Twins on March 12.
The A’s might similarly attempt to wait for the right value this winter. Unsigned names they could target include Clay Bucholtz and Gio Gonzalez.
“Ultimately, we realize the need is there for starting pitching,” Forst said.
Don’t be surprised, though, if the A’s tinker with their bullpen again before filling that need.