How Will A's Setup Relief Work Once Games Start Back Up?

John Hickey

The cessation of the Cactus League and subsequent postponement of the start of the regular season for eight weeks in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic, meant that the Oakland A’s never got to make final decisions on a number of roster spots.

One of those was the bullpen, where the A’s have an All-Star closer in Liam Hendriks and some good arms, but no real definition of the right-handed setup man role.

Coming into the spring, the A’s were counting on Lou Trivino to move back into that role. The 11th-round draft pick in 2013 out of Slippery Rock had a dominant breakout rookie season in 2018, going 8-3 with a 2.92 ERA and 10 saves. Last year was a stumble to a 5.25 ERA in which he’d lost his regular eighth-inning gig.

There was no sign, at least statistically, of a turnaround. He‘d pitched in six games, throwing six innings, and the results saw him give up 11 hits, walk four, give up two homers while owning a 9.00 ERA.

The break that will see the players need to come back for a second spring training, probably sometime in May, will mean that those numbers won’t matter much. He’ll get another chance to show himself then. But if things don’t get better, who then steps in?

One possibility is Joakim Soria. However, the right-hander will turn 36 before the season resumes. He, too, had a bad season last year with the second-worst ERA (4.30) and homer (nine) numbers of his career. But his WHIP (1.029) was one of the best of his career, suggesting batters still find him a challenge.

His spring numbers don’t show much, because he only got into three games (three innings, 6.00 ERA). But he’s served in the past in closing and setup roles, and that experience could pay off for the A’s this time around.

For the last two years Yusmeiro Petit has been among the best middle relievers in the game. He’s done some setup work, but it’s not beyond reason that he would be asked to make the move if someone else doesn’t step up. In his first two seasons with the A’s he has a 2.86 ERA, a 12-6 record, and the 80 games he pitched last year were the most in the American League.

This spring wasn’t much different. While pitching in just three games, Petit allowed just three hits, one walk and no runs.

Then there is J.B. Wendelken. He came up for the first time in 2016, but he didn’t get a real good look until the second half of 2018, when he gave up just one earned run in 13 games. Last year, he split him time between Triple-A Las Vegas (6-3, 3 saves and a 5.59 ERA in 30 games) and Oakland (3-1, no saves and a 3.58 ERA in 27 games).

At almost 27, he hasn’t found his role yet. This time around, he might get the opportunity.

One longshot for the role would be Chris Bassitt. Assuming that the delayed start to the season enables A.J. Puk to begin 2020 as a member of the starting rotation, bassitt and his 25 2019 starts would be sent to the bullpen.

In the past, Bob Melvin and the A’s brain trust have always wanted Bassitt as a starting option, and Bassitt sees that for himself. For 55 of his 68 career appearances, he’s been a starter.

When he’s pitched in relief, he’s generally been stretched out. In four of his seven relief appearances over the last two years, he’s thrown three innings or more

But if he was to be put into the setup role, things would change. He’d be throwing in one-inning stints for the most part, and were that to be the case in 2020, he wouldn’t be stretched out whenever the inevitable injury to a starter came along. For that reason, Melvin & Co. might be reluctant to put him in a setup role.