When it comes to what the Oakland Athletics need in the bullpen, anyone’s guess seems fair–but one thing is certain: If the A’s and Billy Beane want to become something more than baseball’s most amusing Cinderella story, changes need to be made if they plan to persist in the postseason.
This past year after taking the AL West a second consecutive time, hopeful A’s fans were dazzled by the talent and consistency of breakout superstar pitcher Sonny Gray–who after an upstanding debut performance, ranks easily among, if not, the most promising of the rookie prospects in 2013.
However, even armed with newfound youth and vitality, and an added 2.67 ERA, the Athletics failed a second time to push past Justin Verlander and Detroit’s lethal lineup in the postseason–again, falling just shy of the Series and winning the romanticized “last game of the season.”
After a typically unpredictable offseason in Oakland, those changes came in the form of releasing both powerful producer Bartolo Colon, and fan-favorite Grant “Rage” Balfour from the pitching roster. Many wondered how the notoriously frugal A’s were going to compensate, and the answer’s name–is Jim Johnson.
Though Oakland will miss the “rage” Balfour brought to the bullpen, Beane’s ultimate scheme this time around just might be to leverage the young roster with some postseason experience to help anchor the team in late innings this year. A great closer takes a unique set of both tangibles and intangibles to keep that even keel necessary for success–Jim Johnson has both.
“He’s a great teammate, he’s a great competitor, he never makes excuses. He’s a sharp guy. I could talk about him forever … and on top of it all–he’s a hell of a pitcher,” said former manager Buck Showalter of Johnson. “When you can close a game in the AL East, you know you’ve got something special, and he did that a lot.”
On top of the rave reviews, Johnson, 30, led the league in saves, boasting an impressive 2.72 ERA last season. Though he struggled at times, Johnson is expected to perform more consistently than Balfour, replacing “rage” with “resolve” in late-inning situations. Balfour, who did have a stable 2.59 ERA, still only ended 2013 with 30 saves–While Johnson, a 13-year veteran, brings a portfolio of leading the league (51, 50) saves in the past two seasons, coupled by an All-Star appearance in 2012.
After avoiding arbitration in a one-year, $10 million contract with the closer, all signs point to Oakland getting their money’s worth in Jim Johnson. While Oakland was amused by Balfour’s passion, Johnson answers to the call of duty in a less flashy fashion, bringing necessary focus and intelligence to the bullpen. While Balfour will be missed in the locker room, Johnson comes with a proven track record of dedication and long-term statistical success which he plans to extend in Oakland, where he begins the next chapter of his career as the focal point of a reconfigured Athletics bullpen.
“I have a game-plan for what I want to accomplish” Johnson said. “To win a World Series with the team that drafts you would be a great honor, but rarely does that happen…
“So I’m here now. That stuff’s over. New colors. New uniform. New team. Same goal.”
Johnson and the Athletics will enter 2014 with that mutual goal in mind: “to win the last game of the season,” and Johnson appears to have all the right stuff to make that a possibility.