“If you don’t have a bullpen, you ain’t got nothing.”

Dusty Baker, one of my all-time favorite people in the game, used to say that all the time. I think the lineage of that original quote was credited to either Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra, two sage baseball men in their own right.

For the past two years, there’s an irrefutable case to be made that the Athletics’ strongest component has been its relief.  And maybe not so coincidentally, the small-market, low-payroll A’s have claimed back-to-back American League West titles.  As pitchers and catchers report to Phoenix tomorrow for 2014 Spring Training, Bob Melvin calls this year’s bullpen perhaps his deepest and most talented.  In fact, there are long-time baseball observers who rank the A’s relievers as one of the best groups in the majors.

That arms-arms-arms mantra filled the hallway outside of the offices of Billy Beane and his top lieutenants David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein during the offseason, resulting in a possible pen upgrade in the additions of new closer Jim Johnson, who has saved a major-league leading 101 games over the past two seasons, a pair of proven setup men in Luke Gregerson and Eric O’Flaherty (available at mid-season), and dart-throwing lefty specialist Fernando Abad.

Like the returning nucleus, all of these newcomers share a common thread.  They all throw strikes.  That’s a characteristic that must thrill pitching coach Curt Young to no end.  It fits right into his keep-it-simple, make-them-hit-your-pitch approach.  The quality depth and experience he will have at his disposal gives Young many advantages over most clubs in the American League.

Detroit Tigers v Oakland AthleticsHe has more flexibility in utilizing relievers in the best possible matchups.  And because he’s operating with so many star-quality arms, he can keep his bullpen fresh throughout the grueling campaign—much like he and Melvin did last season.  That plethora of strike-throwers also creates healthy competition from within, which only pushes pitchers to reach their maximum potential.  The A’s also have the luxury of at least five pitchers who can spell Johnson with an occasional save assignment.  Returnees Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle have both slammed the lid on Oakland wins in ninth-inning duty, while Dan Otero—he of the 1.38 ERA last year—was a lock-down closer at Triple-A Sacramento before dominating with the big club.  Then add Gregerson and eventually O’Flaherty, and you should understand why there will be an air of excitement at Papago Saturday when these impressive arms start popping catchers’ mitts on multiple mounds in the Arizona sunshine.

Maybe the most significant impact our bullpen will have on opponents will be psychologically.  Beyond saving our young starting rotation from high pitch counts, they essentially shorten the game.  Opposing hitters will know that if they don’t score early and stake a lead, they run the risk of never seeing a lead.  Any way you slice it, that spells i-n-t-i-m-i-d-a-t-i-o-n. 

And that, A’s faithful, is a very good thing. 

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