In part four of his spring training preview, ESPNFlorida.com Insider Tommy Rancel takes a look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen
Unable to spend freely on the open market, the Tampa Bay Rays have built the core of their pitching staff through the draft and via trade. In fact, all 162 games last season were started by a pitcher drafted by the organization and no free agent pitcher has started a game for the franchise during the Andrew Friedman Era. In conjunction with a superb defense and a pitcher-friendly Tropicana Field, the staff finished 2011 with the second lowest ERA in the American League (3.58) with the talented rotation posting an AL-best 3.53 ERA.
As a result of solid talent acquisition, the Rays ended the season with more qualified major-league starters than slots in the rotation. Conventional wisdom suggested they would move one of those starters to upgrade their offense; however, the front office was able to add Carlos Pena and Luke Scott without compromising the depth of the rotation. While they still have seven starters for five spots, it is always better to have more pitching than not enough. There is always the chance for an opportunistic Friedman to deal one of his starters in March should another team come calling, but as we have seen before, the Rays makes deal on their own terms and not for the sake of making a move.
While Friedman has been able to build his rotation with precision, bullpen construction is largely a crapshoot. Year-to-year reliever performance is extremely volatile with only a handful of relief aces able to produce at high levels on a consistent basis. Of course, that type of reliever costs money and the Rays are unable to gamble with multi-million dollar contracts by playing reliever roulette.
Instead, Friedman and Co. have mastered the art of the one-year deal, and developed a process for finding flawed –yet talented – arms who can be acquired for less than they are actually worth. Following in the steps of Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, and Rafael Soriano, Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta were underpaid and underappreciated arms that the Rays cultivated into an effective, high-leverage tandem last season. The 2012 bullpen is much more stabilized than the 2011 version; however, there are some risk/rewards arms that could swing the pendulum one way or the other. After looking at the rotation in part three , let’s find out who will be providing them with relief.
Kyle Farnsworth – Farnsworth was never named the closer, but was Joe Maddon’s go-to-guy in save opportunities (25 for 31). Regardless of title, the 35-year-old was extremely effective for the Rays in high-leverage situations. Continuing a career-renaissance with the help of a cut-fastball, Farnsworth produced a personal-best 2.18 ERA in 57.2 innings in 2011. He also posted fantastic control rates (51 strikeouts to 11 unintentional walks) while keeping the ball on the ground 51% of the time – another career mark. He did strike out batters at a rate below his career total, but maintained a solid level of whiffs. The lone negative from last season was some elbow soreness at the end of the season; however, Farnsworth says he is healthy now after an offseason of rest. As long as that is true, Farnsworth 2.0 should anchor an even stronger bullpen chain in 2012.
Joel Peralta –After a career year in 2010 with the Washington Nationals, the bullpen’s other 35-year-old turned in a stellar 2011 with the Rays. While Farnsworth was busy racking up the saves in the ninth inning, Peralta’s work in the innings prior made sure there were saves situations to be had. Using a nasty splitter, the right-hander proved his 2010 improvements versus left-handed batters was not a fluke. Lefties hit just .152 against him last season while striking out nearly six times more than they walked. Even with regression, the split-finger should keep his splits relatively neutral. With Farnsworth likely returning as the team’s “saver” Peralta should continue to get a lot of high-leverage regardless of the inning.
J.P. Howell – Once the high-leverage ace of Joe Maddon’s bullpen, Howell returned to mixed results in 2011 after missing the entire 2010 season (shoulder). On the surface, his 6.16 ERA and 5.3 BB/9 in 30.2 innings was terrible. Meanwhile, his 53% groundball rate and .581 OPS against lefties showed there was still some effectiveness in his left arm. As mentioned, his biggest flaw was an uncharacteristic battle with command; however, that trait may take longer to regain after major surgery. In the best case scenario, Howell returns even stronger in 2012 with improved command and effectiveness against batters on both sides of the dish. At worst, he is a lefty specialist with a solid groundball rate.
Jake McGee – A 25-year-old left-hander who can throw in the mid-90s with a good – at times dominant – slider, McGee has the highest upside of any of the current members of the Tampa Bay bullpen. Although he struggled to start the season, he returned from a mid-summer stint in Triple-A with increased velocity and improved control of his slider. He still needs to improve going against the platoon split (perhaps develop an off-speed pitch) and did have a brief battle with longballs; however, he has the stuff and the makeup to be not only a high-leverage option in 2012, but become legitimate relief ace.
Brandon Gomes – Gomes lacks the pure stuff of McGee, but was as impressive from the right side down the stretch last season. What he lacks in terms of velocity, he makes up for with an effective splitter -most commonly used against left-handers – and a very good slider he uses against fellow righties. Gomes was recently named by Andrew Friedman as leaving a lasting impression on everyone last season and is an underrated piece of the bullpen going into 2012. He had offseason back surgery, but should be good to go by opening day. With a similar batted-ball profile and pitch repertoire, Gomes could be a younger version of Peralta; especially if his split-finger continues to develop against lefties.
Burke Badenhop – Acquire via trade from the Miami Marlins, Badenhop generates groundball rates that will invoke memories of Chad Bradford – minus the extreme sidearm delivery. Using his 6-foot-5 frame to generate good sink on his fastball, he owns a career 56% groundball rate and set a career-high in 2011 with a 58.5% rate. He has been very good versus right-handers throughout his career and has shown some improvements versus lefties in recent seasons. . A former starter, he can go multiple innings per appearance in addition to being used in key groundball situations. He might not see many save opportunities, but could be an important stopper in the sixth and seventh innings.
Fernando Rodney – The wildcard in the bullpen in almost every sense of the word, Rodney is the fireballing, former closer of the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles, who struggles with control on an annual basis. In fact, he walked more batters (28) than he struck out (26) last season while losing his job as closer to Jordan Walden. With a career 4.29 ERA and an even higher walk rate (4.88 BB/9) it is hard to see exactly why the Rays guaranteed the soon-to-be 35-year-old $2 million for 2012.
While looking for the answer, you may find that Rodney possesses what could be the single best pitch on the entire staff while producing a 58.4% groundball rate that rivaled Badenhop – at least in 2011. James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Cobb each have fantastic off-speed pitches, but Rodney’s changeup may be the best of the bunch. According to Brooksbaseball.net, his changeup has generated a whiff on 38% of swings dating back to 2007. In conjunction with his hard sinker, the changeup has helped him narrow the platoon-gap and even produced some reveres splits over the last few seasons. The likely pet project of coaches this spring – especially new bullpen coach Stan Borowski – he could be an extremely useful, high-leverage weapon for Joe Maddon if he can harness some of the wildness a la Grant Balfour in his time with Tampa Bay.
Josh Lueke – On pure stuff alone, Lueke is probably the best arm acquired by the Rays this offseason. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, he throws in the mid-90s with a decent breaking ball and very nifty off-speed pitch. In 32.2 innings with the Mariners last season, he showed a legitimate ability to miss bats despite posting a 6.06 ERA. For all the good he showed in the second half of last season, you cannot mention his talent without bringing up his past which includes jail time for the charge of false imprisonment with violence. Both the Rays and Lueke say the 2008 incident is in the past and hope he can be an important and productive member of the team and community going forward.
Next up in the series: Invitees