At the conclusion of the 2012 season, Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane joked that he would like to see his young pitchers wrapped in bubble wrap for the duration of the offseason.
Knowing that wasn't a realistic expectation, the A's training staff, in conjunction with manager Bob Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young, formulated a plan to protect some of the team's most valuable arms.
As a result, nine of the A's pitchers were given a lighter throwing program for the spring and they sat out the first week of game action. It was a decision the team could easily afford to make because of the extended spring training with the World Baseball Classic.
"It's almost like a mental break before you even get started, you can concentrate on your conditioning and whatever it is you do routine-wise to get ready," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "All in all I think it is good for them both physically and mentally."
The aforementioned nine pitchers were starters Brett Anderson, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and relievers Grant Balfour, Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Jerry Blevins.
The A's pitching staff will be the key to the team's success in 2013. Last year they logged a 3.48 ERA, which was second-best in the American League. Amazingly, they did it with 12 different rookies taking the mound. Those rookies collected 54 wins, which is a Major League record.
Parker and Milone each won 13 games, tying an Oakland rookie record, and both hit career-highs in innings pitched. Parker, who had Tommy John surgery in 2009, threw 213 1/3 innings, and Milone threw 196. Aside from wanting to feel like they are part of the action in the early games, they knew the approach was probably a good idea.
"I think it makes sense," Milone said. "We're all young and throwing a lot of innings. It kind of benefits us because spring training is a little longer this year, so if we started throwing from the beginning, we're going to have a lot of starts, and relievers are going to have a lot of appearances."
Like Milone and Parker, the A's relied heavily on the rookie bullpen tandem of Cook and Doolittle. The two friends are ultra competitive and it is fitting that they each finished the season with 72 1/3 regular season innings. Cook can still point to the fact that 25 of Doolittle's innings last season came in the minor leagues.
"We always give each other a hard time at everything," Cook said. "Ask him how it's been in ping pong lately."
While often engaged in friendly competition, the two relievers were both in agreement that it was a good idea to take it extra easy this spring.
"It's actually been really great to be honest with you," Cook said. "When you first come into camp and you see everyone throwing live BPs you almost get the sense of feeling a little bit behind schedule, but as soon as it was time to throw bullpens and live BPs I was right on track with where I needed to be."
"I think it's big for me that I was able to be gradually build up," Doolittle added. "I'm in such a different position than I have been in past spring trainings."
That's because Doolittle was drafted as a first baseman and last season was his first year pitching as a professional. In 44 games with Oakland he had a 3.04 ERA, his first career save, and 60 strikeouts with just 11 walks.
"I do rag him because he's got a virgin arm when it comes to pitching," Cook said. "He's still relatively fresh, if you will."
The A's want to keep all of their arms "fresh," even the more experienced ones. Balfour logged a MLB career-high 76 1/3 innings last season. He was scheduled to be held back, then the decision to have surgery to repair a torn meniscus early in camp insured his arm would get plenty of extra rest.
Anderson is still on track to take the mound on Opening Day. He didn't throw a lot of innings last season, but he did return after missing 14 months while recovering from Tommy John surgery. He is expected to return to the mound on Saturday after straining a trapezius muscle in a Cactus League start.
Blevins tossed 69 innings last season, not a career-high, but he was protected as well. As one of the veteran leaders of the bullpen, he was happy to put trust in the team's coaching and training staff.
"It's nice to be able to work at a healthy pace rather than to be rushed," Blevins said. "Those guys know better than I do."
At this point in the spring every healthy A's pitcher is now getting a regular workload. Only time will tell if the approach of early spring will pay off. It is certain, however, that it was a much better option than bubble wrap.