As promised, I will go over the Rays bullpen situation for 2011. The reason I’m doing this, by the way, is because these are issues I won’t have time for come preview time. I want to keep each preview in the 750-1000 word range so in-depth discussions of bullpens would be out of the question.
The Rays lost pretty much their entire 2010 bullpen, which ranked among the best in baseball. Closer Rafael Soriano left to sign a $35-million deal with the Yankees to be Mariano Rivera’s setup man. Surprise bargain find Joaquin Benoit cashed in with the Tigers for $16.5-million and went from best to worst bargain in the space of a year. Dan Wheeler, meanwhile, signed with the Red Sox, Grant Balfour with the A’s, Chad Qualls with the Padres and both Lance Cormier and Randy Choate remain on the free agent market.
The only holdovers are J.P. Howell, who missed all of last season with shoulder surgery, and Andy Sonnanstine, who’s had trouble sticking with the major-league club since they got good.
But don’t fret Rays’ fans, you have the smartest GM in baseball and the bullpen might not be bad at all, in fact, it just might be better than it was last year; it’ll certainly be cheaper.
The free agent deals signed to former Rays’ relievers this offseason totalled over $65-million in guaranteed cash. That is money the Rays can put toward signing the crazy amount of picks they’ll have in next June’s draft.
To replace those players, the Rays signed two free agent relievers: Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth.
Both, in my humble opinion, are fantastic signings. Peralta was stupidly good in Washington last season posting a 2.02 ERA, a 3.02 FIP and a 5.44 K/BB ratio. He also allowed only five home runs in 49 innings of work.
If he was a few years younger (he’ll be 35 on opening day) or had played in closer to 60 games rather than 39, he’d be cashing in similar to the way Benoit did. As it is, the Rays got him for the bargain basement price of $900,000. He’s better than Benoit and $15.6-million cheaper.
Then there’s Farnsworth: Yes, he’s easy to pick on. He was once a sure-fire elite closing prospect and his career has seemingly been nothing but shattered expectations, but the Rays have grabbed him at the right time.
Even though he’ll be 35 just after Opening Day, Farnsworth has been getting progressively better over the past two seasons with Kansas City and Atlanta. After posting a disastrous 5.49 FIP in 2008 with the Yankees and Tigers, Farnsworth has followed up with two spectacular seasons. In 2009 he raised his K/BB ratio to 3.00, the third highest total of his career to that point and then bettered it in 2010 with a 3.21 mark. Farnsworth has also posted fantastic FIPs in that span at 3.10 and 3.06.
The success he’s had over the last two years can be traced to better pitch selection. He’s used his slider much less often (from 34.7% of the time in 2008 to 20.6% in 2009 and 12.4% in 2010) and has incorporated the use of a cutter in its place. He’s also started using his changeup occasionally to keep hitters off balance and to be more successful against lefties.
Farnsworth will be paid $3.25-million in guaranteed money which is less than both Octavio Dotel and Jon Rauch and also less than Chad Qualls. A lot of experts didn’t like the deal, but this non-expert loved it.
Then there’s the rest. Manager Joe Maddon has said he will use a “closer-by-committee” until someone steps up. I never see this as a bad thing as I think situational closing is actually the best way to handle the position.
Peralta and Farnsworth will be joined by Howell who is a very effective lefty when healthy. Andy Sonnanstine should also hold down a spot, possibly as a swingman.
Then there are a couple players that I think are primed to become elite relievers. The first is Jake McGee.
McGee is a 24-year-old left-hander who has an electric fastball and a decent slider. His inability to develop secondary pitches has all but ended his run as a starter, but his absolute dominance at times leads me to think that he’ll be an elite-level reliever in the majors very soon.
After a call-up to AAA around the middle of last season, McGee transitioned from a starter to a reliever and that’s when he started to show real promise. In 11 games, McGee posted a 0.52 ERA with 27 Ks in 17.1 innings of work. He also walked only three batters and allowed just nine hits.
He earned a September call-up to the big club where he allowed just one earned run over five innings of work, striking out six. Even as a starter at lower levels, McGee posted surreal strike out numbers and showed decent command. I fully expect him to step in and dominate at the major league level and perhaps even close out games regularly.
Mike Ekstrom posted a 2.79 ERA and 3.72 FIP at AAA in 39 games last season and also looked solid at the major-league level in 15 games, while Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos (both acquired from the Padres in the Jason Bartlett trade) could also be very good at the major-league level.
The team then has Rob Delaney, who was claimed off waivers from the Twins, and non-roster invites R.J. Swindle, Jonah Bayliss, Cory Wade and everybody’s favourite former Jay and part-time author Dirk Hayhurst.
The sheer depth of major-league-capable arms tells me that the Rays will have little trouble adapting to their free agent losses. Guys like Peralta, Ekstrom and McGee should be more than capable of replacing what left.