Pros and Cons: Is Mujica a risk worth taking?

Pros and Cons: Is Mujica a risk worth taking?
November 22, 2013, 8:00 pm
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Since the start of 2010, reliever Edward Mujica has allowed just 37 walks in 275 2/3 innings. (USATSI)

The wheels came off for Mujica down the stretch so badly that he lost the Cardinals’ ninth-inning role to Trevor Rosenthal. (USATSI)

Programming note: Get up to date on all the latest offseason A’s news on the Hot Stove Show, Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m. on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area

Reliever Edward Mujica brings some impressive credentials to the free agent table, and he needs them in an offseason market that’s flooded with available closers.

Despite a shaky finish to his 2013 season, the 29-year-old right-hander figures to command a lucrative multi-year contract. The A’s, who stand to lose fiery closer Grant Balfour on the open market, are on the lookout for relief help.

Here’s the pros and cons of Oakland signing Mujica:

With Balfour’s inevitable departure, the A’s are losing a quality right-handed arm for the late innings. They’ve expressed their desire to add someone to compliment Ryan Cook and lefty Sean Doolittle. Mujica began last season as a setup man for St. Louis but emerged as the closer for the eventual National League champs and racked up 37 saves, fifth-most in the National League.

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Mujica has some of the best command of any major league reliever. Since the start of 2010, he has allowed just 37 walks in 275 2/3 innings. His WHIP (walks & hits per innings pitched) during that time is 1.001, an excellent ratio. The Venezuelan used to be mainly a fastball pitcher, but he’s evolved over the years and now relies heavily on his terrific change-up, which has boosted his ground-ball rate. But you gotta ask …

What happened to this guy at the end of last season? After flourishing as a first-time closer and making the All-Star team, the wheels came off for Mujica down the stretch so badly that he lost the Cardinals’ ninth-inning role to Trevor Rosenthal. Mujica battled shoulder irritation and fatigue that reportedly caused him to alter his mechanics. Opponents hit a robust .514 (18 for 35) against Mujica in September. He fell so far down the totem pole in the postseason that he didn’t make a single appearance in the World Series. That’s quite a slide – and a lot for a guy to digest over the offseason.

But if Mujica were to sign with the A’s, he wouldn’t have the weight of the world on his shoulders. The A’s would have a trio of relievers to choose a closer from – Cook, Doolittle or Mujica – and that decision wouldn’t have to be made right away. They could use the Cactus League to evaluate and see if someone grabs the reins on the ninth-inning job. If not, it wouldn’t be a tragedy if the closer situation was fluid entering the regular season, with manager Bob Melvin going with the hot hand. Go back to 2012, and the A’s rotated between Balfour, Brian Fuentes and Cook before Balfour finally solidified the closer’s job.

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The A’s front office, including Melvin, has expressed confidence in Cook and/or Doolittle to be the potential closer. Each has experience in the role – Cook’s is more substantial than Doolittle’s. But Cook battled mechanical issues toward the end of last season, and 2013 was Doolittle’s first full season as a big league reliever. You can’t blame the A’s for seeking out more depth. Last season’s emergence of Dan Otero makes him another quality option, but Melvin has mentioned that Otero might be most valuable in the seventh or eighth inning.

Mujica is looking at a big payday from somebody. Last year’s 37 saves, the outstanding low walk rate, the fact he’s just 29 years old …. it all adds up to him cashing in. Projections have him finding a three-year deal in the $21 million range. That’s a lot of money (and a long commitment) for someone who isn’t pegged as a no-brainer closer candidate. Relievers can dominate for a stretch, but when they falter, it can sometimes take a while to re-gain confidence.

In winning back-to-back division titles, the A’s have relied greatly on their strong bullpen. When they’re rolling, the formula is often six strong innings from the starter, then a group of relievers passing the baton to each other through the 27th out. The more quality relief arms Melvin has at his disposal, the better. Otero, Cook and Doolittle (in some order) is a nice bullpen foundation, but adding someone else to the mix definitely would not hurt.

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Were last year’s late-season struggles an aberration for Mujica or a red flag? Are the shoulder issues bound to re-surface? Will fatigue again factor in considering he’s made 65-plus appearances in four of the last five seasons? Also consider that Mujica has not been a big strikeout pitcher over his career, and his strikeout rate actually dipped a bit last season. If he’s not spot-on with his command, particularly with runners on base, it could mean trouble.

It might seem unlikely for the A’s to spend the cash it will take to land Mujica. But remember that they shelled out a two-year $10.5 million contract for Fuentes and a two-year $8.1 million deal for Balfour before the 2011 season, so they place heavy emphasis on an air-tight relief corps. Surely they’ve done their homework on Mujica and are weighing the good and bad of making a run at him.

There are so many closer types on the free agent market this season – Mujica, Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Joe Nathan, Chris Perez, Fernando Rodney and Brian Wilson among them – that it’s tough to handicap who might be headed where. It’s a crowded enough group that it might work to Oakland’s advantage, with some free agents having to settle for setup roles, which could lower their price. The only guarantee is that the A’s will cast their net looking to catch someone to supplement an already solid bullpen.

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