The Oakland A's signed left-handed reliever Sean Doolittle to a five-year contract extension on Friday, the team announced. A converted first baseman who reached as high as Triple-A as a position player, Doolittle has achieved great success out of the Oakland bullpen since first appearing in the majors in 2012, putting together a 3.10 ERA in 125 career innings, along with a 0.99 WHIP and 129 strikeouts.
Serving primarily as a setup man, Doolittle has proven to be a valuable asset out of the 'pen for Bob Melvin's club during the past few seasons. One of the left-hander's greatest assets is his ability to appear for an entire inning, instead of being limited to facing left-handed batters, as is often the case with left-handed relief pitchers.
Despite his success, however, a five-year extension is a rather unprecedented deal for a reliever with hardly a year of major league service time. As Athletics Nation's Alex Hall writes, the extension is especially unusual for A's general manager Bill Beane, with historical precedent suggesting that Beane generally shies away from long-term extensions to even his best relievers:
It is no shock to see Billy Beane lock up a player who he sees as a key contributor and a good long-term investment to give the team cost certainty (and cost control) during his arbitration years. It's also not surprising to see the player concede two years of free agency at the end of the deal in the form of team options.
However, this is the first time I can remember Billy locking up a young reliever. He loves to ink his young starting pitchers before they get expensive, but neither Huston Street nor Andrew Bailey ever received this kind of deal in Oakland. Considering that they each won Rookie of the Year awards and were racking up saves at this point in their careers, and that Bailey was an All-Star in his first two seasons, it's difficult to argue that Doolittle is better than those guys were.
Even so, despite the deal defying convention, SB Nation's Steven Goldman doesn't find it to be all that weird. Perhaps locking Doolittle up for his arbitration seasons and ensuring that the bullpen has a reliable late-inning lefty to turn to is worth the financial plunge, Goldman writes:
He's 27, so they're going to get to enjoy his company without having to worry about arbitration or free agency until he's 31 or 32. He hasn't been worked crazy-hard, and since he spent a good chunk of his minor league career as a first baseman, maybe there's even less mileage on him than it at first appears. He throws relatively hard for a lefty not in the Chapman class, with a 93-94 mph fastball, and, perhaps most importantly, since Jim Johnson is on a one-year deal and has been so much fun he's already been dumped out of the closer's role, since saving games isn't what Luke Gregerson was acquired for, the A's can now shift Doolittle to the ninth inning, now or later, without being hit with a huge bill for it later. They've prepaid.
Doolittle's contract extension is worth five years and extends at least through 2018, though the deal reportedly includes options for 2019 and 2020 as well. If Beane is willing to make such a long-term investment, perhaps he has plans for Doolittle that extend beyond simply setup work. Or perhaps he sees it as simply insurance, guaranteeing at least some stability in a bullpen that has already seen closer Jim Johnson struggle out of the gate.
Doolittle has already saved a game this season, posting a 3.12 ERA along with a 0.81 WHIP. If Johnson continues to struggle, an interesting battle could ensue between Doolittle and fellow setup man Luke Gregerson for the closer role. With his recent lengthy contract extension, Doolittle just might be the favorite for the job.
A's manager Bob Melvin was particularly thrilled with the deal, telling John Hickey of the San Jose Mercury News that the deal is "a good one for us and a good one for him." Via Hickey's article, here's what Melvin had to say:
The durability that he has shown, he takes good care of himself, all the things that you look for in a guy that you want to get a long-term deal with, he does. ... To have a guy like that around for quite awhile is good news to everybody in our clubhouse.
Indeed, a player with such durability out of the bullpen has to be considered a legitimate candidate for a future closer role, especially now that his arbitration years are bought out. This could be yet another brilliant chess move in Beane's long history of smart decisions; time will tell.
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