When Kyle Farnsworth got injured at the beginning of the season, the Rays bullpen appeared to be in a state of flux. Only J.P. Howell and Fernando Rodney had experience as a closer before, and neither inspired much confidence at the start of the year. In the end, Farnsworth’s injury turned out to be a positive, as Rodney put together the best season ever by any pitcher with 50+ innings in major league baseball history.
Prior to 2012, Fernando Rodney was essentially the epitome of a league average pitcher. He was 22-38 with 87 saves and an ERA of 4.29, which gave him a career ERA+ of 101. He had 393 strikeouts and 233 walks in 430 career innings. Naturally, not a lot was expected of him, particularly as he was heading into this season at age 35. This season, everything clicked. Rodney became a force in the bullpen, putting together a 2-2 record with 48 saves and a 0.60 ERA. In 74.2 innings, he allowed 43 hits and only 15 walks, striking out 76 batters. He had more saves than hits allowed. At a time when the Rays desperately needed a dominant performer in the bullpen, Rodney stepped up dramatically.
Jake McGee was expected to be the Rays closer of the future when he was drafted, and had been disappointing in 2011 for the Rays. However, he took the next step in his development in 2012, posting a 5-2 record with a 1.95 ERA. In his 55.1 innings, McGee struck out 73 batters, issuing only eleven walks. Wade Davis was squeezed out of the rotation due to the sheer number of starters the Rays have, but may have found a home in the bullpen. Howell proved he was completely healthy following his mediocre 2011 season, and actually set a Rays team record for most consecutive scoreless innings with 27.1 innings.
As a whole, the Rays bullpen was dominant in 2012, having the third lowest ERA in baseball, and the lowest in the American League, at 2.88. The bullpen also had the lowest batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage allowed, and gave up the second fewest walks and hits.
As the Rays had such a dominating season in the bullpen, there really were not a lot of negatives. In fact, most came at the start of the season, when the Rays bullpen was very much in flux. Dane De La Rosa and Josh Lueke had ill-fated stints in the bullpen at the start of the year, and Brandon Gomes did not do much aside from facing Jonny Gomes in the first Gomes v. Gomes matchup in major league history.
Joel Peralta was horrific to start the year, effectively removing himself from closer consideration after blowing up on Opening Day. Through April 13th, he had an ERA of 37.80, and did not get his ERA into single digits until April 25th. Nevertheless, Peralta was still a valuable reliever for the Rays, posting a 2.93 ERA, nearly exactly the same as 2011, from that point until the end of the season, leading the team with 76 appearances and striking out 84 while walking just 17. On the exact opposite edge of the spectrum, Howell’s 3.04 ERA was nice, but his FIP was a terrible 4.78 as he managed a pedestrian 42-22 strikeout to walk ratio and a terrible 1.3 HR/9. Howell did show improvement from June 14th (the start of his scoreless streak) to the end of the season, but that’s a definite concern. But concern isn’t a strong enough to describe Farnsworth’s season. He was unable to replicate his excellent 2011 after returning from injury, pitching to a 1-6 record with an ERA of 4.00 as he looked more like the enigmatic pitcher we remember on the Yankees than the dominant closer he was for the Rays last year.
Looking Ahead to 2013:
Rodney has a contract option worth $2.5Million for 2013. Following his record setting season, it is essentially a forgone conclusion that he will be returning next season. Peralta, Howell, and Farnsworth are free agents, and not all of them are likely to return. There is a chance that Howell and Peralta return, but it would likely be for relatively inexpensive one or two year contracts. Both, especially Peralta, would like to return. Farnsworth is likely out, as he really did not show much after his return from injury, and was eminently replaceable.
McGee and Davis could be in line for a bigger role in the bullpen in 2013. Peralta’s slow start took him out of the running to be the closer early in the year, but he was still valuable as the primary set up man. Should he not return, both could have a chance to step in as the eighth inning pitcher, being the bridge to Rodney. Also, should something happen to Rodney, it is possible that either pitcher could find themselves in the mix for the closer’s role. Likewise, if Peralta returns, he could also get another opportunity to close out games. In an interesting note, since Joe Maddon took over as Rays manager, the Rays have had a different pitcher lead the team in saves each year, as they cycled through Tyler Walker, Alberto Reyes, Troy Percival, Howell, Rafael Soriano, Farnsworth, and now Rodney.
The Rays have had a lot of success signing seemingly underwhelming free agents to fill out the bullpen, only to see them blossom under their watch. Should Howell leave, that would leave the Rays with only McGee as a left handed reliever with a spot seemingly guaranteed in the bullpen. As such, a pitcher like Brian Fuentes may become attractive. Likely to be signed to a low cost contract or a minor league deal, Fuentes has had success in the majors, and may be an interesting low risk, high reward type of deal.
Another pitcher to watch should Howell leave would be Cesar Ramos. In his 17 appearances, he went 1-0 with a 2.10 ERA, giving up 19 hits and ten walks while striking out 29 batters over 30 innings of work. Ramos was also relatively successful coming out of the bullpen for the Rays in 2011, and may have earned another opportunity for a full time position on the major league roster. However, Ramos did not exactly dominate at Durham this year, posting a 5-5 record with a 3.77 ERA in 25 games. As such, he will likely have to impress in Spring Training to be able to make the Opening Day roster.
Chances are, the Rays bullpen will return fairly much intact, as Farnsworth is the only member of last year’s bullpen that is extremely unlikely to return. As the Rays bullpen has been in the top five in ERA in two of the past three years, this is not necessarily a bad decision.