Volatile bullpen situation old hat for A's
Removal of Johnson as closer continues team's ninth-inning musical chairs
SEATTLE -- Jim Johnson was acquired by the Oakland A's from Baltimore during the offseason and signed to a $10 million contract, making him the second highest-paid player on the roster, $500,000 behind Yoenis Cespedes.
He led baseball in saves the last two seasons with the Orioles, finishing with 51 in 2012 and 50 in '13.
So what's going on in Oakland?
Just eight games into the season, A's manager Bob Melvin moved Johnson out of the closer's role. It isn't permanent, however.
"I can definitely see that," Melvin said when asked if Johnson would return to being his team's closer.
It isn't unusual in Oakland, either.
Since Hall of Famer Dennis Eckersley's nine-season run as the team's annual leader in saves, general manager Billy Beane and Co. have never been shy about making late-inning changes.
Over the first 13 years of this millennium, the A's have had eight different pitchers lead them in saves for a season. During its last seven postseason experiences, Oakland has had five different closers.
They allowed four of their firemen to leave as free agents -- Grant Balfour this past offseason, Alan Embree after the 2007 season, Keith Foulke after 2003 and Jason Isringhausen after 2001. They also traded three of them: Andrew Bailey after 2011, Huston Street after '08 and Billy Koch after '02. Octavio Dotel, in an in-season addition in 2004, gave way to Street, who was the American League Rookie of the Year in 2005.
After removing Johnson from ninth-inning duty, the A's will go with a committee approach -- with Sean Dolittle and Luke Gregerson as committee chairmen ... for now.
According to Melvin, their roles were "to work the seventh and eighth, depending on matchups. [Now, we'll] move them back an inning."
Melvin wants to give Johnson a chance to take a deep breath. The pitcher the A's have seen since Johnson checked into Spring Training isn't the same guy they saw take the mound in late-inning situations the last few years. Melvin hopes some extended work in low-pressure situations can get Johnson back to where the A's expect him to be.
That's why all wasn't lost for the A's in their 6-4 loss to the Mariners on Friday night. Trailing, 6-0, entering the bottom of the seventh, Melvin brought Johnson in for some extended work. The veteran responded with two perfect innings, striking out four of the six men he faced and getting ground balls from the other two.
There were some concerns during the spring, after Johnson allowed five runs on 11 hits and three walks in nine innings. But that was only Spring Training.
Unfortunately, things didn't get any better during the opening days of the regular season.
Johnson appeared in five of the A's first eight games and gave up nine hits, six walks, seven runs and hitting a batter, while retiring only 10 men.
Five pieces of historical reference:
• The White Sox became the first Major League club in almost 45 years to start four Cuban-born players on April 5: first baseman Jose Abreu, right fielder Dayan Viciedo, shortstop Alexei Ramirez and catcher Adrian Nieto. The Cleveland Indians featured catcher Joe Azcue, shortstop Zolio Versalles, outfielder Jose Cardenal and pitcher Luis Tiant in their starting nine on April 8, 1969.
• Evan Longoria entered play on Saturday with 163 home runs, tied with Carlos Pena atop Tampa Bay's all-time list. No other active player is the career home-run leader for a franchise.
• In the 18 seasons of Interleague Play, there is still one matchup that has never occurred -- San Diego at Toronto. The two teams have played three series, but they have all been in San Diego -- where the Blue Jays have a 5-4 edge.
• With Passover beginning on Monday, stats guru Bill Arnolds points out Brad Ausmus of the Detroit Tigers and Bob Melvin of the Oakland A's have become the first pair of Jewish skippers to guide Major League clubs at the same time. Each manager also has a Jewish player on his team: Sam Fuld with the A's and Ian Kinsler with the Tigers.
• Atlanta pitcher Ervin Santana made his Braves debut on Wednesday with eight scoreless innings against the Mets, throwing his first 20 pitches for strikes. He's the first pitcher to do that since 1988, according to Stats Inc.
• During the first 140 games of the season there were 67 replay reviews, only 21 of which were overturned.
• The Mets were hitting a National League-low .204 entering play on Saturday, which makes it difficult to put together a rally.
• San Francisco's 15 home runs in its first 11 games are tied with the White Sox for the Major League lead going into Saturday. The Giants, however, hit 11 of those home runs over seven road games to open the season. Playing home games in pitcher friendly AT&T Park, the Giants ranked 29th in the Majors with 107 home runs last season, eight more than Miami but 105 fewer than Baltimore -- which led MLB.
• Kansas City's 248 homerless at-bats to open the season before Alex Gordon went deep in the fifth inning on Wednesday at Houston, was the second-longest homerless streak for an AL team to begin a season since the advent of the designated hitter in 1973, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Cleveland went 253 at-bats before Toby Harrah hit the Indians' first home run in 1979.
• Adrian Beltre's 98 home runs with the Rangers leaves him two shy of becoming the fifth player with 100 home runs for three different teams. He hit 147 for the Dodgers and 103 with Seattle. The four players who have hit 100 homers with three different teams are Darrell Evans (Braves, Giants and Tigers), Reggie Jackson (A's, Yankees and Angels), Alex Rodriguez (Mariners, Rangers and Yankees) and Jim Thome (Indians, White Sox and Phillies).
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.