PHOENIX -- The Oakland Athletics deep bullpen depth could be put to the test early. With the news that closer Grant Balfour will be on the shelf for 4-6 weeks with a meniscus tear, the focus will shift to two pitchers in their sophomore seasons -- Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle.
While the A's and Balfour maintain hope that he'll be ready for opening day, they will still be in good hands with the tandem of Cook and Doolittle in the eighth and ninth innings if need be.
Cook, a right-handed pitcher, was the closer for a portion of last season. In 2012, he earned 14 saves, pitched in his first All-Star Game, and threw 23 consecutive scoreless innings to start the season.
By now most A's fans are well versed in what Doolittle, a first baseman-turned-pitcher, accomplished last year. In just 17 minor league games he worked his way all the way up from Single-A to the Oakland A's. The lefty reliever struck out 60 batters in 47 1/3 innings.
The lefty-righty tandem of Doolittle and Cook are two reasons why the A's bullpen is deeper than it has been in a very long time.
"I feel like we've got guys to pick each other up from top to bottom," Cook said. "I truly believe that the guys we have down there are lights out and we can hopefully continue to be that."
Balfour provides both a veteran presence and leadership in the bullpen. Once he returns to camp he'll just have to do it from the sideline for a little while. It goes without saying that Balfour's depth of experience makes him one of the most important players on the club.
"I think it's huge," Doolittle said. "On a team with a lot of young guys, to have a veteran with the presence he has, to have the experience that he has, he pitched in the World Series, he's been a setup man, he's been a closer, there's so many things a guy like Cook and myself can learn from him."
While Balfour is one of the most intense individuals you'll ever see on the mound, behind the scenes he has taught the younger relievers to roll with the punches and handle adversity.
"Down there in the situations we are in coming into games, you are either the hero or the zero," Cook said. "To see the way you sometimes have to handle being the zero even though you don't ever want to be, but knowing how to take those falls and get right back up and pick right back up where you left off we learned a lot in that aspect."
With or without their leader, Doolittle and Cook will continue to push each other and foster friendly competition. Even though they are good friends -- they even traveled to Belize in the offseason with fellow reliever Jerry Blevins -- the good spirited one-upmanship started during their very first throwing session, as they threw right next to each other.
It started when Doolittle asked Cook how he felt after the throwing session. Cook responded by claiming that he was throwing harder that Doolittle.
"There's that friendly competitiveness there," Doolittle said. "For me, throwing with a guy like that you kind of play up to your competition. I'm throwing with a guy that was in the All-Star Game last year."
Last season Cook and Doolittle tossed an identical 73 1/3 innings (Doolittle threw 26 in the minors). As a result the A's are trying to bring them along slow in spring training. The two relievers will get an extra day off from throwing on the mound, and will probably not be used in the earlier Cactus League games.
Especially after losing Balfour for a little bit of time, it is imperative that Oakland can rely on Doolittle and Cook to help shoulder the load.