Insider: New Bullpen Arms Impress Rays

The results have not been there the 3-7 Tampa Bay Rays; however, the process is alive and well in Port Charlotte. Although grapefruit league records and individual spring statistics do not count for anything, there are plenty of good things to take away from an early March game under the sun. With that in mind, here are just some of my observations from Rays’ camp…

With four spots locked in (Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell, and Fernando Rodney) and another three written in pencil (Jake McGee, Burke Badenhop, and Brandon Gomes), this year’s bullpen is far from the open competition of a season ago. On the other hand, roles have yet to be determined – and will not be any time soon – and a few arms still have that new toy feel to them. Two arms in particular grabbed my attention this weekend.

When the Rays gave Fernando Rodney a guaranteed $2 million this winter, they caught most of the baseball world off guard. A 34-year-old coming off an injury-plagued season (missed 43 days with a back strain) in which he posted a 4.50 ERA and walked more batters (28) than he struck out (26) is not the typical Tampa Bay signing; certainly not with a seven-figure guarantee. Looking at advanced metrics, the Los Angeles Angels would have been better receiving 32 innings from a replacement-level reliever than Rodney in 2011.

Though the recent results – as well as the process – do not offer much hope for Rodney going forward, there was certainly something that attracted the attention of Tampa Bay’s front office…his stuff. I’m sure fans of his previous teams though the same, but if Rodney can harness some of the wildness that has plagued him throughout his career (4.88 BB/9) he has the tools to be an electric, effective, late-inning reliever.

Despite his age, Rodney can still light up a radar gun. Last year, his average fastball was nearly 96 mph, and this weekend I saw him routinely pop the catcher’s mitt at 94-96. Even more impressive than his heater is a low-80’s changeup that rivals any other off-speed pitch on the staff.

Mixing his high-octane fastball with a changeup that was a good 10-12 miles slower, I watched Rodney throw effectively against batters on both sides of the plate. However, because of the changeup, he was even more effective against lefties; something that has been a trend over the past few seasons. If Jim Hickey – and bullpen coach Stan Borowski – can get him under control even a little bit, he could be an extremely useful arm in high-leverage situations. Meanwhile, the same can be said for his entire career.

The numbers game may prevent Josh Lueke from making the Rays’ opening day roster; however, the former Seattle Mariner could one day be an anchor in Tampa Bay’s bullpen. Based on stuff alone, Lueke is arguably one of the seven best relievers in camp, but having minor-league options and a low-base salary means he is likely ticketed for Durham to start the season. That said, he definitely in that 26-35 roster spot range that has been critical to the Rays’ success in recent seasons.

With a large frame (6-foot5, 220 lbs) Lueke generates a solid amount of heat with his fastball (92-95 mph); however, he is not built on velocity alone. Accompanying the hard stuff, he throws a low-80s off-speed pitch and an even slower breaking ball. When I saw Lueke in action, he topped out around 94 mph. At the other end of the spectrum, his curveball bottomed out at 76 mph, giving him a good 16-18 miles of separation.

Along with the raw ability, Lueke appears to have an advanced feel for pitching as well as a quiet confidence. In the past, Joe Maddon has talked about players feeling like they belong in the big leagues. And although he may start 2012 in the minors, you get the sense that Lueke knows he can get outs in the majors right now.

Aside from the confidence, Lueke shows an understanding of pitch sequencing and how to set up the opposition. Whether it is throwing a low fastball and following it up with a slower off-speed pitch to the same location or starting a hitter with a first-pitch curveball, he looks more like a pitcher than a thrower despite having just 32.2 innings of major-league experience. Although it may not happen this year, it would not surprise me if Lueke became a high-leverage asset for Maddon in the coming years. In fact, it would actually surprise me if he did not.