Johnson leads new-look A's pen

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- The Oakland Athletics' spring training facility is awfully lived-in by the palatial standards of Salt River Fields and other modern Cactus League venues. But that's fine with new A's closer Jim Johnson, who can still remember training at Fort Lauderdale Stadium in his formative years with the Baltimore Orioles. Among its other lovable quirks, the old yard had a metal whirlpool tub located in a corner of the clubhouse.

"We didn't have a weight room," Johnson said. "We had a weight tent."

Regardless of the venue, opportunity always trumps creature comforts for a player, and Johnson will have plenty of the former in Oakland, where he begins the next chapter of his career as the focal point of a reconfigured Athletics bullpen.

During a busy offseason, Oakland general manager Billy Beane acquired Johnson from Baltimore and Luke Gregerson from San Diego in trades, while sending lefty Jerry Blevins to Washington and watching former closer Grant Balfour move on to Tampa Bay through free agency.

As detailed in "Moneyball," the A's once outfoxed competing clubs by pumping up a closer's value through the inflated save stat and spinning closers off for more than they were worth (That means you, Billy Taylor). So Beane and assistant GM David Forst went against type when they traded second baseman Jemile Weeks and catcher David Freitas to Baltimore for Johnson, who'll make $10 million this season.

The bullpen, without question, has been a pivotal aspect of Oakland's two straight playoff appearances. Last year, Oakland's relievers ranked among the top three in the American League in ERA (3.22), opponents' on-base percentage (.300), fewest walks (154) and fewest home runs allowed (41). The relief contingent should be very good again this season, with Johnson and Gregerson joining returnees Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, Dan Otero and Jesse Chavez. In addition, lefty killer Eric O'Flaherty is expected to return from Tommy John surgery sometime in July.

Johnson evolved from a starter to a setup man to a closer in Baltimore and flourished overall while navigating a few bumps. He logged a 10.38 ERA against the Yankees in the 2012 American League Division Series, and blew a majors-high nine saves to go along with his 50 saves last season. Johnson has only 265 career strikeouts in 400 innings (for a ratio of 6.0 per nine), so he's going to keep pounding that sinker and hope that most of the copious ground balls he induces find gloves instead of holes.

Johnson and Gregerson both threw bullpen sessions at Oakland's camp Sunday, and manager Bob Melvin came away with a couple of quick takeaways.

"If you put a million dollars on the table and told him, 'You can have that [money] if you throw a ball straight,' I don't know that he could do that," Melvin said of Gregerson. "His changeup moves. Even his four-seamer moves. Deception."

And Johnson? "You can tell he's a bit of a perfectionist," Melvin said. "If he doesn't throw the ball exactly where he wants to, he gets upset with himself. You like to see that."

Johnson blended nicely with the pingpong-paddle-wielding, pool-shooting, HORSE-playing culture in Baltimore, and he arrived in Phoenix sporting some facial hair in keeping with the A's overall look. According to Johnson, it's less about mixing with his new Oakland teammates than a homage to a couple of big career influences. Johnson grew the mustache in honor of Chad Bradford, his early bullpen mentor in Baltimore, and is wearing a soul patch beneath his lower lip as a tribute to Billy Koch, a fellow alumnus of the Bayside Yankees youth traveling team in New York City.

Although Johnson will always be grateful for his 13 seasons in the Baltimore organization, he's come to grips with the idea that times moves on in baseball and there's no room for sentiment in a duffel bag.

"To win a World Series with the team that drafts you would be a great honor, but rarely does that happen," Johnson said. "So I'm here now. That stuff's over. New colors. New uniform. New team. Same goal."