Veteran arms offer A's sensible options

Veteran arms offer A's sensible options

PHOENIX -- It is reasonable to assume red lights and uh-oh flares went up among A's fans late Sunday when the club announced the signings of a pair of veteran right-handers.

That might have been a natural reaction among followers of a team that entered Spring Training with a trio of pitchers seeking to resume careers following a season lost to injury.

Are Ben Sheets or Justin Duchscherer or Joey Devine giving off warning signs? Is that why Oakland general manager Billy Beane had to reach out to Jason Jennings and to Brett Tomko?

(a) Insurance, or merely (b) ingenuity?

Relax, and go with (b).

Sheets is coming along ideally, remaining on the accelerated path back from elbow surgery, penciled in to start Oakland's Cactus League home opener, Friday against the Brewers.

And it is no secret that Duchscherer and Devine are both on slower tracks, very long shots to be able to assume their roles in the rotation and bullpen, respectively, at the start of the season. Under those uncertain circumstances, adding two experienced arms only made sense.

Even with everyone in perfect health and on an unobstructed path to the season, pitching isn't like ice cream. You can't have too much of it.

Complicating Duchscherer's fight back from an elbow surgery and depression, he was sidelined by acute lower-back pains that necessitated a nerve ablation procedure, performed last Tuesday.

The doctor's immediate recommendation was that the pitcher not step back on a mound for two weeks. Even if able to resume throwing then, Duchscherer would be three weeks behind everyone else.

Devine, also making his way back from elbow surgery, is "throwing at 85 percent," according to A's manager Bob Geren, who said, "It's 50-50 he'll be ready to go at the start of the season, or shortly after."

Thus it seemed only prudent to secure a couple of guys who have been high-end pitchers, when they have been healthy.

"We didn't necessarily sign Jennings due to the situations with Duke and Devine," Geren said Monday, as the rain clouds withdrew from the Valley and only sunshine flooded the fields. "I thought he pitched very well last season, and he's a good pitcher who was available.

"And Tomko is our Bedard," Geren added, referring to the Mariners' re-signing of lefty Erik Bedard, who isn't expected to return to the mound until June off shoulder surgery last August.

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Tomko's impressive late-season stint in Oakland was derailed by an irritated nerve after six starts, of which the 36-year-old had won four with a 2.95 ERA.

"He pitched well for us last year, and I talked to him on-and-off during the winter. He was on our radar all along," Geren said.

While Tomko reported to Oakland's Minor League complex and will continue to work his way back there -- a late-May return is considered the earliest -- Jennings quickly checked into the big league camp and had his first bullpen session Monday.

Jennings, 31 and eight years removed from being the National League's Rookie of the Year, chose the A's offer over several other teams which made him offers -- but not because of any overt concerns about Duchscherer or Devine, whose absences obviously would create his opening.

"They do know I can step in for a couple of starts if someone goes down," Jennings said. "And after pitching out of the bullpen for the first time last year, I can do that, too. I'm pretty much open to both."

Before going 2-14 as a starter in 2007-08 with the Astros and the Rangers -- who converted him into a crack long reliever last season -- Jennings had an admirable six-season run in the pitching Death Valley of Colorado. Rockies pitchers aren't famous for hauling in awards, but Jennings ran away with 2002 rookie honors and still ranks as that franchise's second all-time top winner with 58.

"They didn't quite say whether they're looking at me to start or stay in relief," Jennings said of the A's, "but I have an opportunity to do both. I feel healthy, like I'll be able to pitch the way I know how.

"I think I offer the type of experience any team can use."

His most important offer, however, is that of security. Ordinarily, the bullpen isn't playing musical chairs; all the seats are taken by Andrew Bailey, Brad Ziegler, Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow, Brad Kilby, Jerry Blevins -- and Devine.

Having Jennings in camp, and Tomko in the wings, at the very least affords Geren and pitching coach Curt Young to bring Devine and Duchscherer along slowly, smartly, not rashly.

The first of two intrasquad games is Tuesday. Cactus League play begins Thursday. Although as a fresh camp arrival who has not yet been formally scheduled for an outings, Jennings will make several appearances before either Devine or Duchscherer surface. So it will be an interesting progression to monitor.

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Change for a Nickel. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.