MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

After down year, A's bullpen again formidable

Axford, Doolittle and Madson shutting door on foes

After down year, A's bullpen again formidable

OAKLAND -- The A's have long been the home of the disposable closer. Huston Street, Grant Balfour, Jim Johnson, Billy Koch, Keith Foulke and Ryan Cook all passed through Oakland since 2002, most of them with at least a modicum of success.

Closers are replaceable, the philosophy goes. You can always find another one, cheaper and better. Until you can't.

Because of injuries and a myriad of factors, the A's bullpen bottomed out last year. Their 28 saves were the lowest in Major League Baseball. Their ERA of 4.63 was 28th.

The goal in the offseason was to rebuild the bullpen. Mission accomplished.

"It's a completely different bullpen," Oakland manager Bob Melvin said Thursday before his club opened a four-game series against the Yankees at the Coliseum. "Really, the only three guys back are [Fernando] Rodriguez, [Ryan] Dull and Doolittle. And Doolittle wasn't with us for most of the year because of injury."

Thus, this past offseason, A's general manager Billy Beane departed from the norm and spent $34.9 million on three relievers -- Ryan Madson, John Axford and Marc Rzepczynski. With the return of Doolittle from a left shoulder injury, the latest edition of Oakland's bullpen is complete.

Axford ends the game

The Yanks came in with Done BMC, their lights-out closing bullpen trio of Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman.

The A's have Done ADM: Axford, Doolittle and Madson. Consequently, their 13 saves entering Thursday were tied for sixth in MLB. The Yankees had 11.

"I think we have a good bullpen. I've been saying that since the beginning of the year," said starter Rich Hill, another Beane signee at $6 million, who is 6-3 with a 2.54 ERA and a beneficiary of that reconstructed 'pen. "Those guys just keep coming at you. They have amazing resiliency. They just continue to put the pressure on the hitters and it's a lot of fun to see."

Beane loves reclamation projects, and Hill and Madson fit that bill.

The 36-year-old Hill went through a traumatic period when his infant son passed away. He recovered from Tommy John surgery and a shoulder injury and was trying to make it back last season as a reliever when the Nationals released him from their Minor League system. Hill then decided to recast himself as a starter with the independent league Long Island Ducks. The Red Sox picked him up and he had three greats starts in September, striking out 10 in each game, all victories.

Madson hadn't been a closer nor had he pitched in the Majors since 2011 when he saved 32 games for the Phillies. He parlayed that into a one year, $8.5 million contract with the Reds. But Madson never pitched for Cincinnati, blowing out his right elbow in Spring Training of 2012 and then undergoing Tommy John surgery.

Madson earns the save

It was only during the offseason in 2014 that Madson realized he could throw again with some velocity and without pain. He was home in Temecula, Calif., just north of San Diego County, helping take care of his four little kids. The extent of Madson's baseball effort at that point was just lobbing the ball with Little Leaguers. Jim Fregosi Jr., a scout for the Royals who in the same job helped the Phils sign Madson, asked him if he'd like to work with a local high school pitcher.

"I had to air my arm out again and it felt so fresh, so clean, without pain," Madson said. "Before that, I've had those moments when I didn't feel like I was myself. All I did was play baseball all my life and I couldn't do it. It didn't sit real well with me and I'm sure it's the same thing for any player who's been injured and couldn't get back from it."

Fregosi was so impressed with Madson's condition that he was able to have the Royals invite him to camp in 2015 on a Minor League contract. Madson pitched without pain and was so productive he made the team.

As fate would have it, closer Greg Holland was injured midway through the season, moving Wade Davis into that role. Kelvin Herrera slid into the eighth-inning slot and Madson was asked to pitch the seventh. He excelled with a 2.13 ERA in 68 appearances, and Kansas City won the World Series.

The Royals talked about bringing him back and could have used him this year with Joakim Soria struggling in Madson's former role. It didn't happen because the A's stepped into the breach.

Madson gets out of trouble

"Money talks," said Madson, who has 11 of the club's 13 saves and a 1.93 ERA.

The righty Axford and lefty Doolittle have become interchangeable parts, Melvin said, either pitching in the eighth or ninth, depending upon the matchup. Because Oakland's starters have consistently faltered, Melvin has had to rely heavily on the bullpen. Their 141 2/3 innings entering Thursday ranked third in the Majors behind the D-backs and Reds.

Madson said he had no inkling he'd be the closer when he signed.

"I thought I'd be the seventh or eighth-inning guy," he said. "I never put any weight into that role, especially these days when games are won and lost in the sixth or seventh inning. If you don't have the lead late, what's the difference?"

If you don't have the right relievers in the bullpen, it makes a big difference, as the A's discovered.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.