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Can Oakland A’s do better than Santiago Casilla in 9th inning?

The rebuilding Oakland A’s are comfortably in last place in late July, and so at this point their closer position doesn’t matter too much. If they lose a few more games because of their bullpen, it won’t affect the outcome of their season in any meaningful way.

But dangit, it sucks watching your team blow it in the 9th inning, no matter what the stakes are. Furthermore, jockeying for draft position just isn’t as valuable as it is in other sports, so extra losses don’t come with that particular silver lining. It’s at least worth trying to do the best you can with what you already have.

With that in mind, let’s talk about Santiago Casilla. He absolutely torched his save opportunity on Wednesday — first he walked Josh Donaldson with pitches so bad that a couple nearly hit him in or around the head, and then he allowed homers on back-to-back pitches to Justin Smoak and Kendrys Morales. He entered with a 2-0 lead, faced three batters, and lost 3-2. It was his third blown save in five tries this month, not including a 9th-inning tie he turned into a loss. He’s not hurt, he just got beat.

Do the A’s have any better options for the rest of this season, though? Especially now that Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson ply their trades in Washington? Let’s punish ourselves with a look at Oakland’s pen.

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Santiago Casilla

First, the incumbent. Despite the July slump, Casilla’s lead-holding numbers aren’t that bad this year. He’s had 24 opportunities, and turned them into 16 saves, 2 holds, 6 blown, for a 75% success rate. That’s a bad rate, don’t get me wrong, but to what degree? If he’d converted just two more saves he’d be at 83%, and there would be no problem. Two wins is a big margin for a contending team, but not for the 2017 A’s.

Even the rest of his numbers aren’t awful, or at least they weren’t before Wednesday. Entering the day, his 3.93 ERA was backed up by a 3.58 FIP, with strong rates of Ks, walks, and homers.

But his FIP went up nearly a run in this latest implosion, to 4.38, and even when he’s gotten results this year they have often included nerve-wracking journeys. Can any of his teammates stack up?

Blake Treinen

The A’s newest addition is off to a great start. He’s appeared six times, tossing a scoreless inning in each, with five strikeouts and only three baserunners. His 98 mph sinker is filthy.

Oakland wouldn’t even be the first club to let him close this year — the Nats gave him the 9th inning to begin the season. He only lasted two weeks before being replaced, so it wouldn’t be fair to say he has true closer experience, but at least another team agreed he was worth a try.

On the downside, Treinen has extreme platoon splits. When the A’s acquired him, the community at Nats blog Federal Baseball were adamant that he not face left-handed batters in key situations, and indeed his numbers back up that recommendation. That might be a problem.

Liam Hendriks

Once you get past his 5.01 ERA, it’s not so unreasonable. The rest of his numbers suggest he’s been better than that, adding up to a 3.26 FIP that’s best in the current bullpen other than Treinen’s small sample.

He throws fairly hard, though not as hard as Treinen. He’s striking out nearly a third of his batters (29.7%), for a team-best rate of 11.8 K/9. His hit and homer rates are about average. His walk rate has doubled from its low level the last couple years (3.5 BB/9), but even that I can handle — in conjunction with the sharp rise in his strikeout rate, the opposition is generally just making less contact overall, which can be an attractive trait in a closer. Batted balls are the natural predators of clean innings.

And it’s not like he folds under pressure. He’s never recorded a save, but he’s 19-for-22 (86%) in hold chances in his two years with the A’s. He’s stranded 43-of-53 inherited runners in that time (81%), which isn’t directly relevant because we’re talking about giving a guy his own dedicated inning, but this is a paragraph about clutchiness and the point is Hendriks has at least been pretty good in that department statistically.

Rest of the pen

Running through the others:

  • Daniel Coulombe is the only lefty, so he’s out because he’s needed in other specific situations.
  • John Axford is walking nearly a batter per inning. Update: He’s also not on the team anymore, which would make things logistically difficult.
  • Frankie Montas is a rookie trying to harness his command. The 9th inning is not the place to do that.
  • Simon Castro did some late-inning work at Triple-A Nashville this year. So far he’s pitched in three games for Oakland and allowed homers in two of them, so let’s see how that trend goes before discussing him for the 9th.
  • Josh Smith lol no
  • Ryan Dull is expected to return from the disabled list Thursday morning, and he could be an option down the road. But he just missed two months to a knee injury and was having a sophomore slump before going down, so let’s give him time to bounce back first.
  • Bobby Wahl is another future prospect, and he’s eligible to come off the 60-day DL soon. But he’s also a rookie with only seven MLB games under his belt and serious command issues to work through. Even if he’s healthy, he’s not a viable option yet.
  • There is nobody in Triple-A Nashville worth talking about here.
  • Another long-term route is to begin converting some failed starters into relievers. The A’s have a stable full of Quad-A No. 5 types, and perhaps a future late-inning man is hiding among them. Chris Bassitt is already making the move in his recovery from Tommy John, but what about Jesse Hahn as a candidate? There’s also Daniel Mengden, whose Rollie mustache really does make more sense out of the pen. These guys won’t solve the 2017 problem, but it’s something to think about next spring.

One final consideration: Treinen and Hendriks are both arbitration-eligible, and saves are worth their weight in arbitration gold. Let them get out of hand and you’re paying eight figures for Jim Johnson. Let a guy pick up 10 stray saves in late-season garbage time, and you might find yourself paying for the price next winter. If you think you’re grooming your 2018 closer then that tradeoff is probably worth it for the sake of gaining experience, but if you’re just trying to plug a hole for the rest of this lost season then why incur the extra cost?

Given all that, I …

wait, no, there must be another way

Sorry, my conclusion is …

must have miscalculated something

Nope, I’m actually going to say it. Casilla still might make the most sense, in that “there is no good option” kind of way. He’s been suboptimal but not as bad it feels like he has, and the other choices are just as imperfect in other ways. It’s not that I’m arguing for him, I’m just not arguing against him.

If you disagree with that take, then you’re most likely interested in Treinen. But remember, a contending Nats team that was desperate for bullpen help was so impressed with his late-inning prospects that they just dumped him in a trade. One of the appeals in acquiring Treinen’s 5.73 ERA was that a change of scenery could right his ship. And it’s working! He’s in a setup role that suits him well, and he’s nailing it. Are we sure we want to mess with that?

Making Treinen the closer now might seem tempting, but it’s also short-sighted. For goodness sake, we’re sitting here talking about trading Sonny Gray — clearly we are prioritizing the future over the present, and if you’re going to do that then do it all the way. I don’t mean lose for the sake of losing, but if you’ve got a potential setup man then groom him properly rather than asking him to do too much right now when the games have so little meaning.

Of course, having said all that, I’m still a human with emotions and everything. If the A’s pulled Casilla from the 9th, I wouldn’t complain. Heck, I’ve argued all year that he’d be best suited for more of a 7th-inning role. But I can’t sit here and demand his removal, at least not yet. As awful as Wednesday was, it was still the exception to the rule, or at least the guideline. And if a move is made, my vote would be for Hendriks, a strikeout artist who can handle hitters of both sides and is already further along in the arbitration process.

Alright, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go leave an angry comment because I just proofread my article and this idiot writer actually suggested we should keep Casilla in the 9th.

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