MINNEAPOLIS, MN - MAY 29: Brian Fuentes #40 of the Oakland Athletics walks off the field as Joe Mauer #7 of the Minnesota Twins heads home to score after Josh Willingham #16 hit a walk-off home run in the ninth inning on May 29, 2012 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Athletics 3-4 in a walk off. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
The Oakland Athletics have seen some transitions this season in the closer role. With this week's release of Brian Fuentes, it's time to examine how far the A's bullpen has come in a few short months.
On Tuesday, the Oakland Athletics activated Bartolo Colon from the disabled list. In a corresponding roster move, they designated reliever and erstwhile closer Brian Fuentes for assignment. The Brian Fuentes era in Oakland had come to an end over a month before he was removed from the roster, but this marks the official parting of the ways between team and player in what had been a disappointing, turbulent and ineffective relationship.
Fuentes was the first of what would eventually become a three-headed monster of closers for the A's. The current construction is finally, mercifully, a one-headed monster, but we'll get to that in due time. Fuentes appeared in 26 games in 2012 -- all but two of those games coming before June 15, as Jeff Sullivan of Baseball Nation points out -- and over those 24 games, Fuentes picked up two wins and five saves. He also instilled A's fans with legitimate dread when entering games ... and for good reason. Fuentes had an ERA of 6.84 in 2012 and a WHIP of 1.600 and an average of 1.8 home runs per nine innings pitched. While his K/BB ratio isn't absurd, his lack of effectiveness in pressure situations was undeniable. In short order, he stopped being a weapon that Eric Melvin had any faith in.
Enter new go-to closer Grant Balfour. He benefited greatly from being Brian Fuentes, with his 1.073 WHIP and 3.29 ERA appearing to be a godsend in the wake of the fellow who came before him. ERA+ is a metric that determines how well a pitcher performs versus league average, adjusted by park. An ERA+ of 100 would indicate a league-average pitcher in a given year. Balfour's 2012 ERA+ is 123. Fuentes' is 59. So while Balfour was effective for a time and a bit above league average, the A's were lucky enough to have someone waiting in the wings.
When Balfour began slipping, the closer role was handed over to Ryan Cook. Nine years the junior of Balfour and a full 11 years younger than Fuentes, Cook was exactly the player the A's needed at the time. In 36 games (against Balfour's 40), Cook has been the Oakland leader in saves (with eight), has a K/BB of 37/21, a WHIP of 0.917, an ERA of 1.50, has not given up a home run and has an ERA+ of 270 ... nearly 100 points higher than the next-most-effective A's reliever, Jerry Blevins and blowing away the team average of 118.
Cook is the A's All-Star representative in 2012 and the honor is much well-deserved. While there is understandable arguing about Josh Reddick being passed over for an All-Star nod, no one can argue that Cook is not a fine selection. In just his second major-league season, the young pitcher is able to give A's fans a much-needed sense of ease when he steps on the mound in the ninth inning. The Athletics team has gelled far better than anyone expected and are turning heads with their surprising play. This sorting out of the bullpen is just another extension of a well-assembled team on a budget coming together perhaps better than hoped.
The Fuentes experiment has been put out to pasture and Balfour can now better serve in a set-up role. All hail Ryan Cook. If all goes well, he should be wrapping up saves for years to come.