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A's have multiple options for two bullpen spots

A's have multiple options for two bullpen spots

A's have multiple options for two bullpen spots
PHOENIX -- With fewer than two weeks before the A's christen the 2011 season, a handful of names are still being considered for two bullpen slots that remain open on a thinning roster.

One spot is almost assuredly reserved for one of the fifth-starter candidates who doesn't earn a rotation spot, while the other will likely be handed to either Joey Devine or Jerry Blevins -- the latter is the frontrunner despite a poor statistical spring.

Blevins has allowed 10 runs, 14 hits and two walks in eight Cactus League appearances, but the left-handed reliever has showcased continual improvement with his velocity following months of offseason rehab on his surgically repaired left hip. His roster spot appeared rather iffy up until last week, when closer Andrew Bailey suffered a strained right forearm that will have him start the season on the disabled list.

"Numbers-wise, it doesn't look so good, but I feel unbelievable and that's what spring is for -- to get yourself ready for the season," Blevins said. "I feel healthy and my arm feels great. I feel like every outing I've gotten better and stronger and everything is progressing just as I hoped."

Blevins spent all of 2010 in the A's bullpen, compiling a 3.70 ERA with 46 strikeouts next to 18 walks in a career-high 48 2/3 innings over 63 appearances. He was forced to miss the final two weeks of the season due to a left shoulder strain, which was ultimately a result of his hip pain.

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Both injuries forced skewed mechanics, and Blevins said he has spent the majority of his spring reintroducing himself to his old ways. His hip has occasionally proven sore, but only to a typical extent following surgery.

"Until I looked at video, I didn't realize I had changed my mechanics so much, so I'm just working on staying linear," Blevins said. "When I had the bum hip, I finished by swinging around instead of moving forward and keeping my legs in line. So remaining consistent with proper mechanics has been my target. It's harder than it seems. It's a simple concept, but sometimes I think my body almost gets lazy and reverts back."

Devine hurled three consecutive shutout appearances at the start of the spring schedule, but then experienced biceps tightness after pitching on one day of rest on March 7 for the first time in more than two years. The right-handed reliever, who had Tommy John surgery in April 2009 and hasn't pitched in a big league game since '08, walked four of five Seattle batters that day en route to allowing two runs in just one-third of an inning because of hampered mechanics.

Devine took a step forward Monday by pitching in a Minor League simulated game. He said via text that "the box score wasn't great, but as far as I felt, it was quite a bit better." Devine noted he still has "a lot of work to do," which means he's likely ticketed to start the season at Triple-A Sacramento while he continues to get back to his 2008 form -- a year in which he posted an 0.59 ERA in 42 appearances for Oakland. Like Blevins, Devine has an option remaining.

"I think I still have some things I need to work on mechanically and just feeling good for consecutive outings," Devine said. "I'm trying to get on that pace I was on during the first three outings of the spring. I'm just trying to keep making strides in the right direction.

"I just want to pitch. That's my biggest thing. I want to do whatever is best for the organization and whatever is best for myself, and the rest will take care of itself. I know, once everything starts to click and I get rolling, I know where I belong."

The A's will presumably look to fill out their relief corps with Brandon McCarthy, Tyson Ross or Bobby Cramer -- all of whom are still being considered for a rotation spot. Manager Bob Geren's decision will likely come down to McCarthy and Ross, both of whom have big league relief experience.

Ross, who was a surprise roster pick out of camp last year, made 26 appearances with the A's before being sent to Sacramento at the beginning of July to get stretched out as a starter. The hard-throwing righty was shut down in August because of a strained right elbow, but regained health has allowed him to resume starting duties again.

With McCarthy throwing well -- he's tallied more innings than any other pitcher this spring (20 2/3) while compiling a 3.05 ERA without issuing a walk -- Ross may be primed for the bullpen once again. As of Monday, he was given no indication which way the club was leaning.

"They've told me to get ready to be a starter somewhere, and if there is a bullpen position open and they need me to fill in, I'd be happy to do it," Ross said. "Either way, I'm in no position to complain about anything. I got a little taste of the big league bullpen last year, and if they want to try me in that role again, I think I have a better understanding now of what it takes to do well, just with the whole mental process.

"Hopefully I'll be doing a lot better job of it this year. I know they sent me down last year to be a starter, but I just want to pitch in the big leagues, in whatever role it may be."

Ross has focused his attention on fastball command, and he's also working to improve his changeup. In 9 2/3 shutout Cactus League innings, he's fanned seven and walked two. The 23-year-old righty likely won't know his fate until the end of the week, when Geren is scheduled to make the call on the fifth-starter spot, but for now, he's content with the work he's put in this spring.

"My arm's been feeling pretty healthy all spring and my pitches are coming along, so that's all I can ask for," Ross said. "Things, in my mind, are on track."

In contrast, Rich Harden -- initially considered the favorite for a rotation spot -- has yet to pitch in a spring game because of a lat muscle strain. As a result, he's out of the fifth-starter race but is still being viewed as a possibility for a long-relief role by Opening Day. Harden threw long toss on Monday, but he has yet to throw off the mound in more than a month, leaving speculation surrounding his actual readiness for a big league game.

The chosen two bullpen additions will join a relief group that already features Brian Fuentes, Craig Breslow, Grant Balfour, Michael Wuertz and Brad Ziegler. Breslow is slated to work in his first spring game on Tuesday and is expected to be ready by season's start to again guide an A's bullpen that posted a 3.75 ERA in 2010 -- good for sixth-best in the American League.

"I haven't been around a better group of pitchers my whole life, so I want to be able to be a part of that," Blevins said. "I want to be a part of the nucleus here, which is pitching, and I think it'll be that way for a long time."

Worth noting
Monday's game between the A's and Dodgers was canceled because of rain. As a result, scheduled starter Brett Anderson will go Tuesday -- a 1:05 p.m. PT game with the Reds broadcast on oaklandathletics.com with an exclusive audio webcast -- and Gio Gonzalez will be pushed to Wednesday. ... Coco Crisp (hamstring) could possibly return to the lineup on Tuesday. ... Comcast Sportsnet California announced on Monday that former Major League players Fernando Vina and Greg Cadaret will serve as analysts for the A's pregame and postgame shows this season.

Jane Lee is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Major Lee-ague, and follow her on Twitter @JaneMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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