Balfour and Cook make a dangerous 1-2 punch

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Balfour and Cook make a dangerous 1-2 punch

ANAHEIM -- It's a cloudy, overcast and surprisingly humid day in Anaheim. A's manager Bob Melvin is sitting in the dugout shaking his head in disgust. He throws his hands up and stops me mid question. I have done the unthinkable in the superstitious manager's mind. I asked him about Grant Balfour being 10 for 10 in save opportunities since re-taking over the closer's role on August 11. Fortunately the dugout bench is made of some form of synthetic wood to knock on. Melvin's concerns aside, Balfour's pitching may be too good to jinx. He has a 1.85 ERA in his last 43 games. The Australian-born pitcher's second tour of duty as closer is just another example of solid decision making by the A's organization. Balfour started the year as the team's closer. He converted his first five saves before hitting a rough patch at the end of April. He allowed seven earned runs over six outings and blew two saves losing the ninth inning job he coveted. "I set a goal at the start of the year to get that job and I was disappointed when they took it away from me so quick," Balfour said. "I felt like it was a quick trigger really, I had a rough week and it was gone." "That happens in baseball," Balfour added. "You ask anyone in this room it's tough to be nails all year long. It's how you bounce back." And bounce back he did. Instead of sulking Balfour got locked in. He didn't allow a run in 32 of his next 35 appearances, eight of which were more than one inning. "All these guys are about winning and they are not letting pride get in the way of what we are trying to do as a team," Melvin said. "There hasn't been a guy that hasn't been fine with whatever we consider is the best thing to do as a team at that particular time." Being the closer has suited the fiery pitcher well. Since August 11 he has a 67.1 strike percentage and his average fastball velocity is 91.5 MPH. Prior to that date he had a 61.6 strike percentage and average fastball clocked in at 89.9 MPH, though the "Mad Aussie" insists he hasn't changed a thing."Ninth inning, you got the lead, you want to win the ballgame," Balfour said. "It's not like I am getting any crazier. I'm the same guy with the same stuff." Balfour regained the job at the expense of rookie reliever Ryan Cook, who earned 13 saves as the A's closer but blew seven of them. Balfour is third among American League relievers with a .164 opponents batting average. Cook ranks fourth in the league with a .170 opponents batting average. They have both been very good this season. Cook was even the A's lone All-Star representative. He struck out Bryce Harper and David Wright in a scoreless seventh inning during the Mid-Summer Classic. He is just one of many rookie success stories in the A's pitching staff. "It's been awesome," Cook said. "I don't know that we really grasped how good we could be. Once we started steamrolling a little bit we realized we can compete with any body." Cook has once again found his nasty form. He hasn't allowed a run 11 of his last 12 appearances. He attributes an ever-so-subtle mechanical tweak to his resurgence. "It's not a big deal I just fixed myself," Cook said. "It was pointed out by Sean Doolittle and I talked to Curt Young about it. I just made a tiny little adjustment it was nothing big just went back to being effective." Cook ranks second among AL rookies with 60 games pitched and 13 saves. He and Balfour have become a dangerous 1-2 punch in the back end of the A's bullpen. They even took the time to show off their combos during batting practice by pretending to spar with each other. There are no hard feeling about who is closing and who isn't. "He is a professional and he knows what he is doing," Cook said of Balfour. "He is a hell of a pitcher and I love it for him and I love it for us." Balfour has 17 saves this season, and 27 in his career. He is the all-time leader in saves by a pitcher born in Australia, something he says he takes in stride. "It's not a whole lot of saves to be honest," Balfour said with a laugh. "It's kind of one of those things that is cool and hopefully I can extend it out a lot longer so when the next kid comes along he's got something to work for."

A's holiday shopping focuses on a center fielder

A's holiday shopping focuses on a center fielder

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The A’s didn’t add any players during the four-day winter meetings, but they did wave goodbye to one.

Minor league right-hander Dylan Covey was scooped up by the Chicago White Sox in Thursday’s Rule 5 draft. The Sox pay the A’s $50,000 for his rights, and he must either remain on their 25-man roster for the entire 2017 season or be offered back to Oakland for $25,000.

The 25-year-old Covey, ranked the A’s No. 20 prospect by mlb.com, was an Arizona Fall League standout this offseason after working his way back from an oblique injury that wiped out most of his 2016 season.

“We’ll see what happens,” A’s general manager David Forst said. “He certainly was as deserving as anybody of being protected (on the A’s 40-man roster), we just ran out of spots. Good for him to get this opportunity.”

As for ways Oakland might supplement its own roster, that task continues.

The A’s held plenty of discussions over four days spent at the sprawling Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center, but those talks didn’t bear fruit in their search for a center fielder. They had trade dialogue with the Kansas City Royals regarding Jarrod Dyson, a blazing runner and potential leadoff man, but couldn’t find common ground.

As the holidays approach, the A’s will continue to scan the free agent market and explore trade opportunities.

“My guess is there are plenty of things we talked about this week that have legs, and those conversations will continue over the next few weeks,” Forst said. “We’ve got two months until pitchers and catchers report, four months until the season. We’re not the only ones leaving here without actually consummating something.”

The Orioles are another team reportedly trying to pry Dyson from the Royals. Another center fielder mentioned as being available is Reds speedster Billy Hamilton, although reports suggest Cincinnati isn’t in a rush to move him.

Dexter Fowler is the best free agent center fielder still on the market, although Austin Jackson and Rajai Davis seem to fall more in the A’s price range.

Forst was asked how much urgency there is to the center field search.

“I’m not confident they’re gonna be there all winter, there’s only a certain number of guys,” he said. “We’re not going to risk anything to jump out (and do something) we wouldn’t otherwise do. But we think we’re being diligent.

“We cast a wide net, and we continue to. We have to keep doing that just to make sure — free agents, trades, different kinds of players, platoons, whatever. I think we have to keep our toes in every option.”

As for other areas the A’s can improve, they may look to add a veteran starting pitcher. Just speculation, but Doug Fister is one free agent whose price tag figures to be reasonable, and he’s a Northern California native. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise if the A’s simply invited a veteran to camp on a minor league contract to see if they can find a diamond in the rough, or at least someone to provide competition.

A’s executive VP of baseball operations Billy Beane mentioned second base as an area of concern because of injury issues (Jed Lowrie) and inexperience (Joey Wendle, Chad Pinder), but it’s very possible the A’s stick with their in-house options.
 

Notes: A's likely to leave winter meetings with unfinished business

Notes: A's likely to leave winter meetings with unfinished business

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A’s general manager David Forst flies home Thursday afternoon, and unless there’s a drastic change in the final stages of the winter meetings, he’ll still be searching for a center fielder.

Wednesday’s events included some discussion between Oakland and other parties, but no concrete progress toward landing a center fielder. That’s despite the late-breaking news Tuesday that the A’s and Royals were talking trade for fleet-footed Kansas City outfielder Jarrod Dyson.

“It’s a two-way street with a free agent or a team, a function of the other side’s pace,” Forst said. “It’s unlikely (they complete a deal at the meetings), and not for lack of conversations or lack of ideas. Just things move at different speeds.”

It doesn’t necessarily mean the chance of landing Dyson is done. Forst pointed out talks which transpire at the winter meetings sometimes materialize into a deal down the road. But it’s also worth noting that the Baltimore Orioles are pursuing Dyson too. FanRag’s Jon Heyman reported that Baltimore and Kansas City have discussed him.

Therefore, consider the A’s as players in the free agent as well as trade markets.

“We’ve cast a wide net,” Forst said.

Two free agent center fielders came off the board Wednesday as the Rockies agreed to a five-year $70 million contract with Ian Desmond and the Rangers re-signed Carlos Gomez to a one-year $11.5 million deal. Desmond was assumed to be out of the A’s price range, but Gomez was thought to be a realistic target. He opted to return to Texas, which needed to do some outfield re-stocking after losing Desmond and Carlos Beltran, who like Gomez was an in-season acquisition for the Rangers in 2016.

The three most enticing free agents left now at the position appear to be Dexter Fowler — like Desmond, expected to command a pricey multi-year deal — former Athletic Rajai Davis and Austin Jackson.

As for other needs, the A’s would add a veteran starting pitcher at the right price and could look to upgrade at second base, though neither of those is as high a priority as landing someone to anchor the middle of their outfield.

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Manager Bob Melvin addressed reporters at the Gaylord National Resort & Convention Center. Though A’s top baseball official Billy Beane said Tuesday the organizational focus was on the future, aiming for a strong team to be in place by the time the A’s potentially move into a new ballpark, Melvin’s attention is solely on the upcoming season.

“In 2012, we had I don't know how many rookies on that team. It was all rookie starters, and we ended up winning the division,” Melvin said. “Once you start the season, the focus is all about winning.”

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Should the A’s not bring in a center fielder who can also lead off, the first in-house candidate Melvin mentioned as perhaps hitting atop the order was Joey Wendle. He gave a nice showing of himself in a September call-up and hit leadoff for a stretch, but there’s no guarantee that Wendle even starts at second base next season, especially if veteran Jed Lowrie is healthy after foot surgery.

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Former Diamondbacks manager Chip Hale has rejoined Oakland’s staff as Melvin’s third-base coach, and Melvin has plenty of confidence that Hale will capably fill Ron Washington’s shoes as the infield instructor. Washington was popular with A’s infielders and had particular success working with shortstop Marcus Semien.

Hale served as Melvin’s bench coach before getting hired by Arizona before the 2015 season.

“Obviously we've talked a lot about Wash and what he's meant to some of these younger guys,” Melvin said. “We feel like if anybody can replace Wash, it's Chip Hale.”

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Forst said John Axford will pitch for Canada in the World Baseball Classic. Fellow reliever Liam Hendriks has not yet committed to Team Australia.

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Right-hander Chris Bassitt, who underwent Tommy John surgery in May, was examined by A’s head trainer Nick Paparesta on Wednesday and his recovery is going very well. He’s between throwing programs right now. Forst added that lefty Felix Doubront is also coming back well from the same procedure.