By Karl Buscheck | @KarlBuscheck
David Forst's first big-money move as the general manager of the Oakland Athletics was a bold one, splashing out $22 million – plus up to $3.75 million in incentives – to Ryan Madson, a 35-year-old reliever. Madson, who didn't throw a single major league pitch from 2012 to 2014, spent part of the 2014 season tutoring a high school pitcher as a favor for an old friend. 2015 was a much different story.
After inking a non-guaranteed minor league deal with the Kansas City Royals that would pay him a million bucks if he made the squad, Madson spent this past season as an indispensable cog in the nastiest bullpen in baseball – a bullpen that helped the Royals roll to their first World Series title since 1985.
The 6'6” righty, who also won a Fall Classic with the Philadelphia Phillies way back in 2008, dazzled at Kauffman Stadium, posting a 2.13 ERA and limiting the opposition to a .205 average in 68 outings. In the process, the veteran whose career was almost snuffed out by a slew of elbow injuries, pushed his way to the top of Forst's winter shopping list.
Sitting in a left field suite at the Coliseum during a media availability session at the team's recent FanFest event, Forst commanded the room with a calm confidence as questions were lobbed his way.
“The one thing we did this year with Ryan Madson is we went out and were aggressive,” Forst explained. “We sort of went to the top of the market. He just was such a good fit with his stuff and his experience in the back of the pen.”
The signing of Madson was the signature move of Forst's first offseason in the GM's chair in Oakland, but it was actually just one of four key moves he made to overhaul his dumpster fire of a bullpen. Last season, the A's relief crew piled up the third-most losses (31) in the American League, lugged around the third-worst ERA (4.63) in MLB and checked in at No. 19 in strikeouts. It doesn't take a major league talent evaluator to decipher what kind of relievers Forst and his boss –executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane – were targeting: Hard-throwers who miss a ton of bats.
As teams like the Royals have made abundantly apparent, the more flame-throwing relief aces you have pitching out of the pen, the better off you'll be. Madson, who posted an 8.2 strikeout-per-nine ratio and whose average heater clocked in at an average speed of just under 94.5 mph, per the calculations of MLB.com, does exactly that. And based on those numbers, he's not even guaranteed to be the scariest of the club's new quartet of arms.
Liam Hendriks, who Oakland snagged in a swap which sent Jesse Chavez to the Toronto Blue Jays, logged a K/9 ratio of 9.9 and threw a two-seamer that ran up to the plate at 95 mph. Then there's John Axford, who the team officially signed to a two-year, $10 million pact on Dec. 11 – the same day Madson joined the club. Axford punched out 10 batters per nine frames for the Colorado Rockies in 2015 and has a four-seamer that sits in the mid to high 90's. Like Madson, the righty has closing experience on his resume as well.
The 32-year-old landed in the No. 9 spot on the National League Cy Young ballot back in 2011 when he saved 46 games. After slamming the door 25 times for the Rockies during the season that was, Axford had options this winter. As it turns out, the right-hander, who is famous for his creative facial hair, is a fan of the region. “I love the Bay Area,” Axford assured members of the East Bay media contingent on hand.
Axford is also a fan of helping the AL west squad solve its pesky one-run loss problem. In 2015, the club dropped 35 contests by a single run – setting a new Oakland record.
“Obviously, last year was a difficult year watching from the other side and just hearing about these one-run games every single time you turn on SportsCenter, but then knowing what the team was able to do the previous seasons – getting to the playoffs. So, the team's good and you know that sometimes bad luck just [happens] and those things happen and getting to the playoffs is really important for me.”
For Marc Rzepczynski, the new southpaw in town, landing in Oakland wasn't his call.
“I got traded here,” Zep – as he's known – cracked, leading the suite to erupt in laughter. “So, I kind of had no choice. No, I'm happy to be here.”
The lefty, who's also known as "Scramble" – a play on his unwieldy last name – brings the heat with a devastating slider which clocked in at better than 92 mph last season and helped him K 10.4 batters per nine innings, as he split the campaign with the Cleveland Indians and the San Diego Padres.
While Madson will be the top caddy for closer Sean Doolittle, Axford and Hendriks will slot in to the middle innings, while Rzepczynski will be the proverbial lefty slayer. In parts of seven seasons in the majors, Rzepczynski has crushed left-handed hitters to the tune of a .288 opponents' slugging percentage. The sharp-witted 30-year-old, who embraces his role as the resident class clown, also embraces his role as the on-call specialist.
“I can get ready in five pitches. I literally can get ready in a batter if you need me to. That's kind of been the mindset for me, it's being ready as quick as I can,” Rzepczynski said, as he sat alongside Axford whom he shared a pen with in Cleveland in 2014. “Sometimes for me I don't even have the time to get the adrenaline going. I'm out there sometimes for one pitch. A lot of times I'm going out there and going, 'Okay, that's it.' ”
As Axford explained, the opportunity to join his old pal Zep and the other new guys in the bullpen is why he ultimately signed up with Oakland.
“Solidifying the bullpen [is what I want to do],” Axford said. “I signed after [they] traded for Hendriks, after Zep came over and after Madson. Sean's already here. Seeing that all of a sudden come together, I wanted to be a part of a group of guys that can be really familiar in the back end of the bullpen no matter where you're setting up and what you're doing. That's really big and key for me. Especially when we can have some young guys and some of the older guys and the veteran presences back there. For me, that's a big thing too to be there and maybe be one of the veteran guys and help out.”
As Forst foreshadowed, there's still a chance that one more veteran guy, who has been left stranded on the free-agent market could end up in an Oakland uniform in due time.
“I can't think of anyone specifically off the top of my head right now that I think might fall to us,” Forst said. “But we do have the flexibility – both payroll and roster-wise – to be opportunistic.”