Oakland, Calif. • From Baltimore to the Bay Area, closer Jim Johnson has taken notice of the care with which Oakland’s Bob Melvin and pitching coach Curt Young manage the bullpen.
That means a lot for last year’s AL saves leader as he joins a new team for the first time in an already impressive eight-year major league career. In fact, Johnson had interest in being part of the Athletics if traded.
In December, the two-time reigning AL West champion A’s pulled it off: acquiring Johnson to fill a big void in the ninth inning with All-Star Grant Balfour gone to Tampa Bay in free agency.
"I have a habit of watching how other managers manage their bullpen, so I’m very confident. Bob and Curt do a great job," Johnson said during last weekend’s FanFest. "I’ve seen that over the last several years. I ended up in good hands."
General manager Billy Beane and Melvin would have been happy to go forward with either Ryan Cook or Sean Doolittle, both already accomplished in finishing games.
With Johnson now in the mix, there are more options — and he is thrilled to be anchoring one of the best bullpens in baseball. A’s pitchers and catchers report to spring training in Phoenix on Friday, with the first workout Saturday. The club begins its final spring at Phoenix Municipal Stadium before a move to nearby Mesa.
"The bullpen the last couple years, we’ve had a lot of depth," Doolittle said. "Bob and Curt, they showed us, based on the way they handled it, that they feel confident plugging any one of us into any number of different roles. Now, a lot of us have experience doing a lot of different things."
The 30-year-old Johnson converted 50 of 59 save opportunities in 2013, going 3-8 with a 2.94 ERA. He shared the major league saves lead with Atlanta’s Craig Kimbrel and will earn $10 million this season.
Johnson, who led the majors with 51 saves in 2012, will now be called upon to close out games with opposing lineups featuring Prince Fielder in Texas and Robinson Cano with Seattle — not to mention the big hitters in Los Angeles, Josh Hamilton and Albert Pujols.
"You can tell he’s a big student of the game and watches things really closely," Melvin said. "For a bullpen guy, that can be tough to do, you’re sitting out there with a group of guys and you’re just waiting for your name to be called. He watches the game pretty intricately and he knows one of our priorities is our bullpen and we try not to overtax guys. Now that you’ve said that, he has 101 saves the last two years in the American League East, so he likes to pitch. The way Curt handles our staff and the way we handle our bullpen, hopefully that’s a desirable situation for him."
Johnson is confident in every member of an already proven group of close-knit relievers.
"You’ve got to come with it every single day," Johnson said. "The ninth inning is important but sometimes that big out you need is in the sixth."
The A’s have relied on several steady pitchers to get them late in the game once the starter is done — Cook, Doolittle, Dan Otero, Jesse Chavez. By rotating them all, the A’s expect to have a fresh staff come September.
"In simple terms, we try to put guys in position where they’re going to be successful," Young said. "That’s been the formula. As a pitching coach, you’re obviously always looking out for health so they can pitch all year long. That kind of shows up. You’ve got to be able to trust everybody out there, and that’s what we try to build in those guys and that’s what they try to give back to us."
It has worked well for the low-budget A’s, who have lost the AL division series to Detroit in five games the past two Octobers.
Johnson is ready for the transition after spending parts of eight seasons with the Orioles, who selected the 6-foot-6 right-hander in the fifth round of the 2001 amateur draft.
"Obviously, after the trade I was doing some research and I’ve seen what the front office has been doing," Johnson said. "Guys are great, I know most of them from playing against them for such a long time. Now, it’s time. We’re ready to roll. This is the time of year, enough of the offseason, we’re ready to start getting out there in the sun."
Oakland also traded for right-handed reliever Luke Gregerson in a swap that sent outfielder Seth Smith to the San Diego Padres, then added Eric O’Flaherty last month. Scott Kazmir is a new addition to the rotation.
Johnson is happy to be on the other end when it comes to playing in Oakland.
"It’s always one of the places, I know our team and other teams hate coming here because they know it’s going to be a dog fight" Johnson said. "Sometimes it’s nice to host that dog fight."
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