Oakland has edge in AL West bullpens

Ranking bullpens isn’t an easy task because they are normally a year-to-year thing and sometimes even a week-to-week proposition.

But if you look at a bullpen from the closer and work your way back, the edge goes to Oakland because of what the Athletics boast at the back end of their bullpen.

Here’s a look at the bullpens in the West and their rankings.

Oakland – A healthy Grant Balfour allows the Athletics to turn ballgames into seven-inning affairs. The fiery Balfour was automatic for the Athletics down the stretch last season, finishing with 24 saves. He was slowed by knee surgery this spring but is already back pitching in games and should be good for the start of the season. Set-up man Ryan Cook is power set-up man from the right side and Sean Doolittle gives Oakland the same type of option from the left side. Cook allowed 42 hits in 73 1/3 innings last year and Doolittle had 60 strikeouts in 47 1/3 innings. Jerry Blevins and Jordan Norberto are both lefties who combined to go 9-2 last year and both posted ERAs of less than 3.00. Those five pitchers are the main reason the Oakland bullpen combined to go 30-14 last season with an ERA of 2.94. There are no guarantees the staff can repeat the feat this season, but the same pieces will be trying to do it.

Texas – The Rangers get the benefit of the No. 2 spot based on the expectations that Joakim Soria returns from Tommy John surgery in May to give the bullpen a boost. If he does, the Rangers should be able to match the Athletics in making games seven innings long with Soria getting the ball to Joe Nathan. Soria struggled in his last healthy year in 2011 but is ready to be the set-up man for Nathan. Free agent signee Jason Frasor is the likely eighth-inning man for now, but he hasn’t had an ERA lower than 4.12 since 2010. Nathan was an All-Star last season, saving 37 games for the Rangers. Texas could have two solid left-handed options in Robbie Ross and Michael Kirkman, provided Texas doesn’t make a late-spring decision to move Kirkman to the rotation after his solid spring. Ross can pitch in the seventh or eighth innings effectively. Texas doesn’t have the depth in the bullpen it had last year though nor the abundance of power relievers.

Los Angeles – A healthy Ryan Madson closing games would put the Angels ahead of Texas in the rankings. But that doesn’t look like it’s going to be the case. Madson, who signed with the Angels in the offseason, is having elbow problems and was already coming back from elbow surgery. He’ll start the season on the disabled list and his problems have opened the door for Ernerto Frieri to close games for the Angels once again. He had a breakout season after being picked up in a trade during the season but struggled down the stretch. Los Angeles did upgrade the bullpen by adding reliable lefty Sean Burnett, who has pitched in 212 games over the last three seasons. Los Angeles already had a solid lefty in Scott Downs. Righty Kevin Jepsen also pitched well in relief for Los Angeles last season.

Seattle – Right-hander Tom Wilhelmsen was good enough last season for the Mariners to make Brandon League expendable. All Wilhelmsen did was save 29 games, average more than a strikeout per inning and notch a 2.50 ERA. He has young power arms in the bullpen with him. Right-handers Carter Capps and Steven Pryor each showed flashes in their rookie seasons in Seattle. Both averaged more than a strikeout per inning in their limited time with the Mariners and figure to have their roles expanded. Converted starter Charlie Furbush and Lucas Luetge are the best lefty options. Furbush had a 2.72 ERA last season and a nifty WHIP of 0.95.

Houston –
The Astros are going to rely on veteran right-hander Jose Veras and his career save total of five to close out games this season. The good news for Veras is that if he excels at his new role, it could be his ticket out of Houston where just about every Astros’ player is available through a trade. Houston will be Veras’ sixth major-league team he’s played for since 2009. Lefty Wesley Wright is the veteran in the Houston bullpen and was solid last season, posting a 3.27 ERA in 77 games. Lefty Xavier Cedeno showed some promise in Houston last year. The Astros may also have to rely on right-hander Rhiner Cruz, who had a 6.05 ERA and 1.71 WHIP as a rookie.