PHOENIX -- The Oakland Athletics carried as many as five left-handers in the bullpen last year, and they used them to great advantage.
Looking at 2013, the question is whether the Athletics can afford to even keep three. Even if they can wedge a trio of lefty relievers onto the final 25-man roster, there will be some shocks when the ultimate decisions on which ones to keep come down.
The Athletics have one of the best crops of left-handed relievers in recent memory, pitchers who would be locks to make the big-league club in another organization.
Hideki Okajima is the latest of those. He signed a minor-league contract with an invitation to the big-league camp in the first days of spring training.
"I never looked at the roster when I was coming here," Okajima said. "I was just happy for the chance to pitch again in America. In Boston there was never left-handed depth like this. I know it's going to be tough (making the team), but it's the same for us all."
It seems likely that Sean Doolittle and Jerry Blevins, the only lefty who was with the club all last season, are the only locks for the A's left-handed relief corps.
Doolittle went 2-1 with a 3.04 ERA last year and struck out 60 in just 471----3 innings. Blevins was 5-1, 2.48 in his best big-league season and has the ability to pitch middle and short relief. He's also tough on left-handed hitters.
"I haven't been doing this for all that long," said Doolittle, who switched from first base to pitching in 2011. "This seems like a place where there are a lot of lefties who not only are good but can pitch in multiple roles. It's going to be tough."
In addition to the three already mentioned, lefties in the mix include Travis Blackley, Jordan Norberto (4-1, 2.77), Pedro Figueroa (0-3, 3.32) and Garrett Olson.
"Doolittle has that power arm you look for," pitching coach Curt Young said. "Blevins is more of a classic lefty; he can go a couple of innings, or he can match up with one tough lefty hitter. You love that versatility.
"Figueroa has come back from Tommy John surgery throwing strikes and he was good for us even though he rode the train from Sacramento to Oakland. Norberto has tremendous stuff. Olson came here looking to impress, and we're learning what he can do. And Okajima has that great deceptive motion and screwball. He had one bad year (in 2010), but he was one of the guys who helped Boston win a World Series (2007), and that means something."
The good news for the A's is that Okajima and Olson are on minor-league contracts, so they can be kept in the organization even if they don't make the final 25. Among the rest, only Blackley is out of options, meaning Oakland can send the others to the minors without fear of losing them.
Or the A's can make a trade.
"It's too early for us to have to worry about making any kind of decision," general manager Billy Beane said. "But I am never going to worry about being in the position of having too many good players. There are a lot of good candidates."
There are good right-handed candidates, too, and they could push the lefties out of the picture. Closer Grant Balfour and setup man Ryan Cook are sure to make the roster. Pat Neshek (2-1, 1.37) and Evan Scribner (2-0. 2.55) were helpful last season, and Beane added Chris Resop to the roster in November. Resop, who was 1-4, 3.91 for Pittsburgh last season, is thought internally of having at least an 80 percent chance of making the team.
Then there are Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin. If one of those right-handers doesn't make the roster, he may be sent to the minor leagues, but there is a chance that he will be considered the long man in the bullpen.
"Last year there were times when we had four lefties and three right-handers," manager Bob Melvin said. "I don't know that we'll be able to do that this year. I do know it's a nice problem to have."
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