Oakland A’s fans got to watch Liam Hendriks’ spectacular rise. The Australian went from being designated for assignment in 2018 to baseball’s best reliever, an Oakland hero through the truncated 2020 season.
Now, he’s leaving Oakland for a lucrative, three-year deal to play for the Chicago White Sox.
Yes, he’ll be joining the same team that he squelched to secure the A’s first postseason series victory since 2006.
It’s a career arc the A’s are familiar with, watching a talent grow far out of their team’s restrictive budget. They’re also familiar with what comes next: trying to find the next unpolished gem that may flourish in the A’s vacant closer role and repeat the cycle.
The A’s are likely to look at outside options — via trade or free agency — to bolster the bullpen if Yusmeiro Petit, T.J. McFarland and Joakim Soria depart but probably won’t be out seeking a closer.
They have in-house options who can slide into that role. And, keep in mind, a de-facto closer could give way to a more generalized concept of a high-leverage reliever.
Here’s who you might see taking on closer — or high leverage reliever — duties in 2021.
General manager David Forst and manager Bob Melvin have said openly that Diekman is the most logical option to close in 2021.
The 33-year-old left-hander had one of the best seasons of any reliever in 2020. He allowed just two earned runs over 21.1 innings, which included an 18-outing stretch without allowing a single run.
Diekman found his stride when he adopted the frisbee slider grip used by Tampa Bay’s Chaz Roe. The new grip added inches to his horizontal movement, creating a devastating wipeout slider that helped generate 31 strikeouts and lower his WHIP from 1.57 in 2019 to .94 in 2020. With Hendriks in the mix, Diekman was most used in high-leverage situations last season.
If Diekman can keep the walks down — something he struggled with when he came to Oakland in a trade from Kansas City in July 2019 — his transition as a closer could be seamless.
Melvin floated Trivino as another closer option for 2021. That might raise an eyebrow if you’re stuck on the right-hander’s recent struggles.
Trivino, 29, emerged first as a dominant set-up man behind Blake Treinen in 2018. He generated weak contact and struck out 82 with just 31 walks.
Then injury hit in 2019 and Trivino couldn’t quite find his footing or his old self. His strikeout rate started to dip — from 27.4 percent to 21.2 percent — and his walk rate went up. His allowed exit velocity ticked up along with his hard-hit allowed rate.
Despite some external doubt, Trivino started to find his confidence again in 2020 and his stuff improved despite a shaky start to the year. His cutter improved and he started to miss more bats again. But Trivino excelled more in a clean inning and struggled with runners on. Last season, hitters batted .313 with eight runs allowed in the seven games he pitched with runners in scoring position.
Trivino has the potential and the stuff to be a closer, but whether the A’s will trust his consistency in a high-leverage spot is in question.
Forst and Melvin also tossed out Wendelken’s name as a possible closer. He somewhat quietly was one of the more consistent relievers the A’s used in 2020.
The 27-year-old right-handed’s .187 expected batting average (projected average for opposing hitters) and .243 weighted on-base percentage ranked among the top 10 percentile in baseball. Using primarily a 94 mph fastball and slider, Wendelken generated a 29.2 percent strikeout rate last year while maintaining a 1.80 ERA in 25 innings.
His 10.4 percent walk rate is at least a little concerning, but he consistently misses bats and generates weak contact. He’ll be a staple of the A’s bullpen next year, at least, and is sure to be used in plenty of high leverage situations. Closing duties might come along with that.
Hear me out. Weems isn’t likely to close in 2021. The converted catcher only has been pitching since 2016. Along with a 95 mph fastball, the A’s are encouraging Weems to use more of an elite changeup — that could be the stuff that makes him a closer in the future. Maybe not now.
As with Weems, not likely to be a closer in 2021 since the A’s are hoping to ramp him up as a starter. He’s yet to make his first big league start as he was relegated to the bullpen during his 2019 debut to mitigate his Tommy John recovery. He didn’t make an appearance in 2020 after undergoing surgery on a troublesome left shoulder.
From what little we’ve seen, Puk has the stuff to be a closer. A 97 mph fastball, 90 mph slider and 89 mph changeup. He could be dominant in that spot. But, I think we’re all dying to see what he can do as a Randy Johnson-type starter before we start envisioning some Dennis Eckersley-type career path.