Late-game picture a bit unsettled for A's

MESA, Ariz. -- As if the Oakland Athletics didn't have enough choices to make among their overlapping options for the rotation in the season to come, they have a similar scrum for selecting who's going to be given the most opportunities to log saves for them.

The boldly bewhiskered Sean Doolittle was last year's closer, and the lefty logged 22 saves in 26 opportunities. Newly acquired right-hander Tyler Clippard has a 32-save season to his credit with the Washington Nationals in 2012, the one year he held the role with them as opposed to setting up Drew Storen or Rafael Soriano. And righty Ryan Cook logged 14 saves of his own in 2012, when he split closing duties with Grant Balfour while earning an All-Star berth. Doolittle and Cook both rely on mid-90s heat and sliders, while Clippard clocks in a couple ticks slower while relying heavily on a circle change in a broader assortment of pitches.

Complicating the picture is Doolittle's recovery from a partially torn rotator cuff that hasn't required surgery so far. He is anticipated to be back in action at some point soon after Opening Day. As a result, flipping just-acquired shortstop Yunel Escobar to get Clippard looked like a timely godsend, but it didn't foreshadow anything.

"With Sean going down, the timing of the Clippard deal, it looked like we knew about the extent of Sean's injury, but we didn't when we traded for Tyler," A's assistant GM David Forst said. "We just knew we needed to add to the back end of the bullpen. So it worked out great, and hopefully Sean's back shortly after the season starts and we have all three options."

But that isn't the only happy accident as far as Oakland's closing picture goes.

"Sean wasn't 'designed' to be the closer a couple years ago when he moved into that spot, but it's something that we've had success with in the past, where you have a number of guys, you have options," Forst said. "Bob [Melvin] and [pitching coach] Curt [Young] and pitchers, frankly, ultimately feel better when they're designated as the closer, but we just like to maintain the possibility that that designated person can move around."

Manager Bob Melvin is being suitably coy about who might ultimately get the most saves for the A's.

"We could potentially do whatever we think is the best thing, but there's a leading candidate, that I won't say right now," Melvin said. "It's too early to say there's a competition or it's spring performance that's going to dictate that."

While Clippard has been knocked around in spring action, Melvin was quick to sing Cook's praises after Tuesday's game. "He throws strikes, his mechanics are good, he's a mid- to upper-90s guy with good movement, and a wipeout slider. When he's at his best, he's as tough to hit as anybody in our bullpen."

However, one complaint about Cook has been his performance with men on base, allowing 42 percent of inherited baserunners to score. That becomes less of a factor if he were entering in the ninth inning with a lead, however. Clippard has allowed just 29 percent of men on base when he comes in to score, but most of those opportunities came earlier in his career, before the Nationals used him almost exclusively to pitch with leads in the ninth in 2012 and the eighth in 2013 and 2014.

So how many options do the A's have for their most important situations once Doolittle comes back? Is it just three?

"Cookie has closed before," Forst said, adding, "and when we signed Eric O'Flaherty last year we felt like he had the stuff to pitch at the end of the game, and he wanted that opportunity."

So four quality late-game options, if you count the reliably fragile O'Flaherty?

"There were times last year when Danny [Otero] was our best option," said Forst, noting the sinkerballer's contributions with men on base last season, inheriting a team-leading 55 baserunners.

OK, so it takes a village -- we get it. But given Oakland's past success in populating its pen top to bottom, the diversity of alternatives creates an excellent spread of in-game options for Melvin. Which is exactly how Forst thinks it should be, regardless of who winds up notching saves.

"I think we all know that the ninth inning is not necessarily the highest-leverage situation out there," Forst said. "You can have guys who are just as good in the seventh and eighth; a lot of times that's when games are won or lost."

Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.