Barber: Billy Beane hints at more A’s ‘bullpenning’ in 2019

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OAKLAND — Approximately 38½ hours after the A’s season had ended at Yankee Stadium, the organization’s three-headed brain trust sat in the room that usually serves as the team’s indoor batting cage, and discussed the surprising success and abrupt end of the 2018 campaign.

It was interesting. The higher the rank among the three, the more casual their dress. Executive vice president Billy Beane, the dapper puppet master who was played by Brad Pitt in A Major Motion Picture, wore a shimmery sweatsuit. Down-to-earth manager Bob Melvin, who still hits infield before games, was the most formal of the three; he slicked back his hair and put on a dress shirt. General manager David Forst wore jeans, and a sweatshirt over his button-down, trying to plant a foot in each world.

It was as if everyone was trying to prove they aren’t who you think they are. And what about the A’s? Are they team we think they are? Or more to the point, what DO we think they are?

As the Athletics look ahead to 2019, they see power bats and one of the best young infields in baseball. But their pitching staff is a question mark the size of Mount Davis.

You figure Blake Treinen and Mike Fiers and Lou Trivino and Ryan Buchter will be around for the start of the next season. But most of other names in the conversation are either free agents (Jeurys Familia, Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill, Brett Anderson, Shawn Kelley), or guys who will be coming back from major injuries (Sean Manaea, Kendall Graveman, Jharel Cotton, Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn), or pitchers who may not have gained the trust of their manager (Fernando Rodney), or dudes who are arbitration-eligible and of undetermined value (Liam Hendriks, Daniel Mengden, Chris Bassitt).

The A’s won’t have sorted out their rotational plan by the start of the 2019 regular season, and probably not by early June, and possibly not by next August. And underlying the investigation into who will compose the Oakland rotation is a more fundamental question: What, exactly, is an MLB rotation these days?

The A’s, helped by teams like Tampa Bay and Milwaukee, introduced the “bullpen game” and the “opener game” into the sports lexicon this season. They won 97 games without any single pitcher making more than 27 starts, or throwing more than 161 innings, or racking up more than 12 wins. The entire staff logged a grand total of two complete games.

Is that what we can expect in 2019, too? Well, it depends whom you listen to. Beane and Melvin both suggested that bullpenning is (a) the wave of the future, and (b) something the A’s did out of necessity in 2018. But they emphasized different sides of the coin.

“We were trying to do the best we could with what we had,” Melvin said.

You can see why he might have mixed emotions about bullpenning. It’s a headache for the manager, with additional analysis of who is throwing well at any given time, more nuts-and-bolts decision making during games, and a greater chance of pushback from the pitchers.

Beane, though he clearly likes and admires Melvin, might not be particularly sympathetic to these burdens. In Oakland, it’s his way or I-880.

When I asked whether it was Beane’s idea to bullpen A’s games, he replied, “Well, it was until the other night.”

The other night being the A’s wild-card loss to the Yankees, a game in which “opener” Hendriks served up a homer to Aaron Judge that put his team in an immediate 2-0 hole. It was such a perfect Billy Beane answer, about 90-percent tongue-in-cheek while carrying a whiff of self-grandeur.

During the course of the press conference, Beane praised the “opener” concept in several ways. He noted that teams using the non-starter starter “had like a .554 winning percentage.” Beane added: “And the Yankees started (Luis) Severino, and he only threw four innings, and they brought in (Dellin) Betances in the fifth. You saw Milwaukee do it. I believe this is a trend that you’re gonna see more and more of.”

Translation: This is a trend you’ll see more and more of at the Oakland Coliseum.

Melvin added his own endorsement, referring to the Brewers’ win against the Rockies in Game 1 of the National League divisional series on Thursday. “You look at the way Milwaukee did it (Thursday) night. They have a guy who pitched 2⅓ or three innings, then someone follows up with a couple innings, then maybe go to your plus guys at the end. … There’s many ways you can look at this thing.”

Not that the A’s are ready to mothball starters entirely. Beane point to the Rays as a comp.

“They did a great job of being creative with their pen, but they also had Blake Snell in the middle of that, dropping eight shutout innings on you every few days,” he said. “And then they threw (starter Tyler) Glasnow in there. … Ideally, it would be great to have an ace. I’d still love to have an ace or two aces.”

Except that Beane might not be willing to prioritize such a creature. This observation comes from another clue he offered Friday. At one point, a reporter asked him whether the A’s could afford a top-tier starter that arrived via free agency or trade.

“If you have a free-agent market, it’s really risky jumping out there,” Beane said. “Even when teams have money. I mean, the track record’s not really great. So I would say it’s probably not something we’d do.”

Maybe a mid-range starter, then? “Mid-range guys during free agency, they all jump up a level,” Beane said. “You’re almost better with what we did. There’s no risk and there’s all upside to the guys we signed.”

Translation: I’d love to have an ace or two, but I’m not going to break the budget to buy one.

If the A’s have a couple of aces up their sleeves next year, they will have to be bargains. It will be Fiers doubling down on his emergence as a reliable starter, or a youngster like Jesus Luzardo becoming a rookie sensation, or Manaea and/or Cotton returning with rebuilt arms and making a seamless transition to the rotation. These are, after all, the A’s. Things don’t come easy here.

Beane, Forst and Melvin assembled and manipulated and reinvented a pitching staff like almost no one else could have in 2018. In doing so, they likely cursed themselves with having to do it again next year. There’s every reason to think the A’s will be back in the playoffs in 2019, and also reason to believe their fate will again hang on the arm of someone like Liam Hendriks.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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