The Tampa Bay Rays have yet to play a regular season game in 2012; however, that has not stopped the growing number of names being added to the disabled list in advance of opening day. Already without starting centerfielder B.J. Upton for the first few weeks and fourth outfielder Sam Fuld for much longer, it appears as if the Rays will place high-leverage reliever/closer Kyle Farnsworth on the disabled list with elbow soreness. Farnsworth missed time in late-September with a similar injury and has been used on a limited basis thing spring. The soon-to-be 36-year-old saved 25 games for Tampa Bay in 2011 with a 2.18 ERA and very good peripheral stats.
For a pitcher in his mid-30s, there is no “minor” injury in regards to his arm. Perhaps all Farnsworth needs is rest and rehabilitation. That said, a re-occurrence of soreness after a smaller spring workload on an arm that already has thrown nearly 900 innings of high-effort, short relief does not lend itself to optimism.
With Farnsworth on the shelf for an undisclosed amount of time, manager Joe Maddon will have to reassess his bullpen usage. Farnsworth was never crowned as the team’s closer, so there is no need to name a singular replacement. And while the right-hander was the anchor, the remaining links of the bullpen chain should be strong enough to hold leads in his absence. Josh Lueke or Dane De La Rosa will likely replace Farnsworth on the active roster; however, here are the players most likely to be used in his role…
When Farnsworth missed time late last season, Joel Peralta did a more than admirable job of filling in. Armed with a very good split-fingered fastball, the 36-year-old was one of the better setup men in the game. In 67.2 innings of work, he struck out 61 batters while handing out just 15 unintentional walks and seven homeruns.
The effectiveness of the splitter allowed Maddon to use Peralta against batters on both sides of the plate. While holding right-handed batters to a .283 on-base percentage, he held lefties to a .155 (17-for-110) average, the second-lowest mark among major league relievers (min. 100 AB) in 2011. He struck out 29% of the left-handed batters he faced and 20% of the righties. If there is a save situation on opening day, Peralta is the best bet to receive the call.
Before Peralta and Farnsworth became the club’s relief aces, J.P. Howell was the fireman of choice. The California native struggled in 2011 after missing the 2010 season, recovering from shoulder surgery. Though his 6.16 ERA and 1.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio was poor, he was still effective against left-handers (.222/.279/.302).
The problem for Howell last season was going against the platoon split. After holding righties to a combined OPS of less than .600 in 2008 and 2009, the opposite hand hit .302/.449/.528 against him last season. Reports out of spring training say Howell has regained control of his pitches – a key to his success prior to injury. If so, the 28-year-old could work his way back from a lefty specialist to all-around, late-inning weapon.
The wild card – quite literally – in this whole equation is Fernando Rodney. To the surprise of most, the former closer of the Detroit Tigers and Los Angeles Angels signed a deal worth a guaranteed $2 million with the Rays this offseason. Throughout his career, the right-hander has battled with wildness, walking 12% of the batters he has faced.
On the other hand, Rodney has “stuff.” The stuff has been impressive this spring spring as he features a high-octane fastball and a devastating changeup that could be a dynamic 1-2 combo if he can find more control. As a 34-year-old last season, he averaged 96 MPH on his fastball with hitters missing on 46% of their swings on his changeup, according to brooksbaseball.net. The off-speed pitch versus lefties has turned him into a reverse-split pitcher, meaning he is more effective against batters of the opposite hand. Rodney is the big “IF” in the bullpen, but with a few more strikes (looking at Jose Molina) he could become an option for Maddon at the latter stages of the game.
In all likelihood, Maddon will use a combination of all three based on situational matchups. In addition to the left/right splits, batted-ball profiles may come into play. Peralta is an extreme flyball pitcher. in 2011, his 57.5% flyball rate was the second highest among American League relievers (min. 30 innings). In a situation where a home run could tie or give up the lead, this may be an issue. On the other end of the spectrum, Rodney’s 58.4% groundball rate placed him in the top 10 of AL relievers (min. 30 innings) last season. With a hard sinker and a nasty changeup, he could be useful in situations where an extra-base hit hurts more than a walk. Howell was the more neutral member of the bunch, but leaned toward the groundball side. At the same time, a poorly located 85 MPH fastball could leave the park in a hurry.
Three different pitchers with three skillsets leading to three different styles.
If you are watching an early-season Rays’ game and asking who is going to close? The answer likely depends on what you need to get the final three outs of that particular game.