A's position outlook: Casilla adds to surplus of bullpen options

A's position outlook: Casilla adds to surplus of bullpen options

The A’s made a noteworthy offseason addition to their bullpen, but the biggest help to Oakland’s relievers might come from their own starting rotation.

The relief corps shouldered too heavy of a workload in 2016 due to a rotation that struggled with injuries and inconsistency. The bullpen threw a whopping 561 1/3 innings, third most in franchise history behind the 1964 and 1997 squads.

If A’s starters can work deeper into games this season, that alone will take some pressure off the relief corps. But Oakland also added depth and experience to the ‘pen by signing Santiago Casilla to a two-year, $11 million contract. Casilla began his major league career with the A’s before moving on to the Giants, earning three World Series rings and accumulating 123 saves over seven seasons across the Bay.

He adds to an experienced group that includes John Axford, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Dull, Liam Hendriks and Ryan Madson. Four of them — Axford, Casilla, Doolittle and Madson — have substantial big league experience as closers, and that gives manager Bob Melvin flexibility for how he handles the late innings.

With A’s pitchers and catchers reporting Tuesday, we wrap up our position-by-position breakdown with a look at the bullpen:

STARRING CAST: The spring training storyline will revolve around who lines up as the closer. But Melvin doesn’t sound rushed to make that call, and he could mix and match his ninth-inning guys as he’s done at times in previous seasons.

“If you have depth in the bullpen, you can look to do things a little differently,” Melvin said. “Maybe you extend a guy on a certain day and not use him the next day, knowing you’ve got resources behind him. We’re not going to make any proclamations about who the closer is right now. We’ll figure it out as we go a little bit longer in the spring.”

What a boost it would be if Doolittle is full strength after shoulder issues sidelined him for large portions of 2015 and 2016. Of the A’s top six relievers mentioned above, Doolittle is the only left-hander. He would add some needed balance to the righty-dominated relief crew, regardless of what inning he throws.

Madson was signed as a setup guy last winter but took over closer duties early in 2016. He pocketed 30 saves but also tied for second in the AL with seven blown opportunities. Notably, all seven of those came against the AL West. That was part of an over-arching concern, as 19 of the A’s 23 blown saves came against division opponents. That needs to change for Oakland to have any hopes of moving up in the standings.

Expect Dull to be used much as he was last season, with Melvin calling on the escape artist whenever runners are on base and crucial outs are needed. Dull allowed just 13.5 percent of inherited runners to score, third best in the league.

CAMP COMPETITION: With so much late-inning depth, a trade is always a possibility. But barring any moves, the A’s are set at six spots for what’s typically been a seven-man bullpen. It stands to reason they would want a second left-hander in the mix. Daniel Coulombe is the only other lefty pitcher on the 40-man roster besides Doolittle and starter Sean Manaea, so he would seem to have the inside track on the seventh spot entering camp. Coulombe posted a 4.53 ERA over 35 games with the A’s last season, but he’s held first batters faced to a .163 average over his career (8-for-49).

Ross Detwiler, a lefty who went 2-4 with a 6.14 ERA in nine games (seven starts) after being acquired in July, re-signed with the A’s on a minor league deal and could compete for a bullpen spot, particularly if there’s a need for a long reliever.

PAY ATTENTION TO: Highly touted prospect Frankie Montas, who may begin the season as a starter but could factor into the big league picture soon as a reliever. His fastball touches 100 miles per hour, and the 23-year-old Montas held opponents to one earned run in 17 innings during the Arizona Fall League.

Royals announce two-year deal for former A’s starting pitcher

Royals announce two-year deal for former A’s starting pitcher

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Jason Hammel knows he wouldn't be in Kansas City if tragedy had not struck the Royals organization.

The 34-year-old right-hander made that clear right from the start.

"I feel like I need to express my condolences to Royals Nation and the Ventura family," he said, referring to the fatal car crash that claimed pitcher Yordano Ventura in his native Dominican Republic last month. "I truly feel if that unfortunate passing doesn't happen, you're not talking to me."

Royals general manager Dayton Moore said that was precisely the case.

"Obviously we weren't in the starting pitcher market," he explained during a news conference to introduce his new pitcher Wednesday, "although we'd been an admirer of Jason for a while and knew he was an option out there. We were very surprised, truthfully, that he remained on the market as well. Once we got over the shock of Yordano, you have to move forward.

"We have a baseball season to play, a team we're responsible for, players we're committed to and a fan base we're responsible for as well," Moore added. "So our scouts to a man, our entire front office, said, 'There's one guy out there that really makes us better.'"

Hammel will make $5 million this season, $9 million next season and the deal includes a $12 million mutual option for the 2019 season with a $2 million buyout. Hammel can also earn $250,000 if he logs at least 200 innings, a threshold he has never reached over parts of 11 seasons.

Right-hander Alec Mills was designated for assignment to clear space for Hammel on the 40-man roster. The move was mildly surprising given how highly Mills is thought of in the Kansas City system.

Hammel slots into a starting rotation that includes left-handers Danny Duffy and Jason Vargas and right-hander Ian Kennedy, with the fifth spot up for grabs in spring training.

"This deal completes certainly our rotation, our pitching staff," Moore said. "We'll go to spring training and there will be some spots for competition in the bullpen. We'll evaluate that. And as we all know, every major league team has to make adjustments to the roster throughout the season. Hopefully it has nothing to do with health, nothing to do with production."

Hammel was 15-10 with a 3.83 ERA in 30 starts for the World Series champion Cubs last season, though he was not a part of the postseason roster. But he said Wednesday that a shoulder problem that lingered into September was not the reason for that decision.

Nor is it a reason anybody should give pause to his signing.

"Yeah, I mean, without going into great length, that was kind of the hold-up with a lot of teams is my guess," he said. "The fact of the matter is I'm 100 percent healthy and I have been. I wasn't on the postseason roster because we had a really good team."

Hammel is certainly familiar with the Royals. He was teammates last season with outfielder Jorge Soler, who was acquired this offseason in a trade for closer Wade Davis. And he spent last season with second baseman Ben Zobrist, who played for the Royals on their 2015 World Series championship team.

He also was with Oakland when he delivered the pitch that Royals catcher Salvador Perez slapped for the winning hit in the 12th inning of their epic wild-card game in 2014. The hit gave Kansas City a 9-8 victory and spurred a World Series run, while likewise ending the A's season.

"I made my pitch, as I've done a million times in my career, and there's still been hits off that," said Hammel, who admitted to hating Perez for "a good 24 hours" after that September night.

"I learned now that I didn't make him honor the inner half of the plate, because he went out there and got it," Hammel said. "I'm very excited to see him not do that to me anymore."

His deal was negotiated by agents Sam and Seth Levinson.

Report: Former Giants reliever Sergio Romo agrees to deal with Dodgers

Report: Former Giants reliever Sergio Romo agrees to deal with Dodgers

Update (Feb. 15, 2017): Sergio Romo officially signed a one-year deal with the Dodgers.

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SAN FRANCISCO — One of the most popular relievers in Giants history is headed for the other side of a storied rivalry. 

Sergio Romo agreed to a deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers on Friday, per Jon Morosi of MLB Network. According to Jesse Sanchez of MLB.com, Romo’s deal will be for one year and is pending a physical. Romo, a native of Southern California, had spent his entire career with the Giants after being selected in the 28th round of the 2005 MLB Draft. 

Romo had a 2.58 ERA in nine seasons with the Giants, saving 84 games, including the clincher in the 2012 World Series. His fastball to freeze Miguel Cabrera will go down as one of the gutsiest pitches ever thrown in the postseason, but his reign as a closer wouldn’t last much longer. Romo was an All-Star in 2013, but midseason struggles the next year cost him the ninth-inning role. He had just six saves the last two seasons, primarily serving as a setup man for Santiago Casilla while also battling injuries. 

Romo made just 40 appearances in 2016 because of a flexor strain in a right elbow that has always seemed on the verge of blowing out. The Giants handled him carefully once he returned, but he grabbed a prominent role down the stretch by going back to his old ways. Romo’s slider was about as dominant as ever in August and September, and he posted a 1.42 ERA over his final 25 appearances. 

His time with the Giants ended in an uncharacteristic way. Romo was part of the group that blew Game 4 of the NLDS, and the Giants opened their offseason with a set plan to go in a different direction. Mark Melancon was signed to a four-year deal in December. Romo and Casilla had both indicated a desire to return to San Francisco, but Casilla signed with the A’s in January after not receiving an offer, and Romo was left in the same position. In recent weeks, it became clear that the Dodgers would likely present the best opportunity. Romo's departure all but ends the wildly successful Core Four era. Jeremy Affeldt retired at the end of the 2015 season and Javier Lopez may join him soon. 

In Los Angeles, Romo could have an opportunity to continue to pitch in the late innings. The Dodgers do not have a set eighth-inning guy in front of closer Kenley Jansen, and while Romo is best used as a matchup play these days, he remains death on right-handed hitters. Romo, born in nearby Brawley, should be a popular addition in Los Angeles. It won’t hurt that the player who has one of the best entrance routines in baseball will now play in the park with the loudest speakers.

The Giants will face Romo’s Dodgers 19 times in 2017, starting on April 24 in San Francisco. Romo is following a path recently blazed (unsuccessfully) by Jason Schmidt and Brian Wilson, but he should find a softer landing. Romo won’t be asked to be an ace or a closer. The Dodgers surely just want him to continue spinning sliders to right-handers, piling up strikeouts one or two batters at a time. If he’s the Romo of old, the rivalry will get an interesting boost. While the Giants send out a lineup filled with left-handers, Romo may see plenty of Hunter Pence, his neighbor in the clubhouse, and Buster Posey, his longtime catcher.