Otero becoming valuable piece of bullpen puzzle

Crossword aficianado solves opposing hitters with equal efficiency for A's

Otero becoming valuable piece of bullpen puzzle

PHOENIX -- Over the last few years, the A's clubhouse has become a watering hole of sorts for animated personalities. Feeding off the energy from guys like Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick, there's rarely a dull or quiet day at the A's facility.

But not all Athletics are made the same, and that's where right-handed reliever Dan Otero fits into the unique Oakland mold.

He doesn't play video games. He doesn't drink coffee. He doesn't even listen to music. No, instead he does crossword puzzles. And lots of them.

"Back when I was doing my rehab for Tommy John surgery in 2009, I started doing them a lot, because I was in the training room so much," Otero said. "I would bring in four or five crosswords in with me and just knock them out one by one."

Fast forward to this spring. Every morning when Otero arrives at Phoenix Municipal Stadium, he picks up two newspapers, sits down at his locker and goes to work. He starts with the USA Today crossword, which he says he finishes in roughly 15 minutes or less, before moving on to the Arizona Republic, which usually includes two additional puzzles.

Otero said he likes being a cruciverbalist, or someone who is skillful in creating or solving crossword puzzles, because the critical thinking wakes up his brain in the morning while allowing him to simultaneously unwind and keep his mind off everything else, if only for a few minutes.

"I guess it's my caffeine," he said.

Although his daily habits may make him sound like the old man of the A's, Otero is still relatively new on the Major League scene. The 29-year-old is coming off a whirlwind season in which he started the spring with the Giants, only to be picked up and dropped by the Yankees in a span of one day before finally finding a landing spot with Oakland.

To start the year, the A's sent him to Triple-A Sacramento, where he was nothing short of dominant in 23 appearances, accumulating an 0.99 ERA, 15 saves and 22 strikeouts over 27 1/3 innings of work.

Oakland rewarded him with a callup in June and Otero never looked back. A guy whose only big league experience consisted of surrendering 11 runs (eight earned) in 12 games for the Giants in 2012 went on to become the A's most reliable reliever in the second half of the season. He gave up three earned runs in his first four outings with the big league club, but then allowed just three more in his final 29 appearances of the regular season, posting a 0.76 ERA in that span.

That success spilled into the postseason, as he worked 5 2/3 scoreless innings in the American League Division Series against the Tigers.

"He was fantastic," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "When he came up to the big leagues, he was the last guy in the bullpen. We were looking at him more for length, to give us a couple innings. But based on his performance, he created his role and at the end of the season, we were using him a lot. He keeps the ball down, he's got subtle movement and he's gained a lot of confidence. Hats off to him."

This spring, Otero has appeared in four Cactus League games so far, allowing two runs on five hits in 5 2/3 innings. He relies heavily on a sinking two-seam fastball, but he's working on throwing a changeup a little more in camp too.

While he admits that knowing he'll be on the A's Opening Day roster makes him more confident, Otero insists he won't get complacent. Like with crosswords, there's always something new to work on in baseball and he plans on filling in every answer to his game. One letter and one day at a time.

"It's all about what you do next," Otero said. "Last year is in the past and now the most important game is the next one. That's the way I look at it. I know it's a cliché but it's how I've gotten success in my career.

Tyler Emerick is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.