The year was 2007 and for the first time, the Devil Rays’ rotation had two anchors it could rely on to keep the team in the game every time, Scott Kazmir and James Shields. Both had incredible seasons, with Kazmir going 13-9 with a 3.48 ERA and a league-leading 239 strikeouts in 206.2 innings pitched while Shields went 12-8 with a 3.85 ERA and 184 strikeouts in 215 IP. Yet despite the best efforts of Kazmir and Shields, the Rays still finished with just a 5.53 ERA, worst in the American League. What happened? Well, the rest of the rotation was terrible, and the bullpen was even worse.
The Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ 2007 bullpen was one of the worst groups ever assembled, managing just a 6.16 ERA. Eighteen different players appeared in relief for the Rays, with fifteen appearing in five or more games. Of those fifteen, a grand total of two managed an ERA below 4.80, Scott Dohmann and Juan Salas. Ten had ERAs over 6.00. Just six of them ever appeared in a game for the Rays again, with only Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour working themselves into a regular role (J.P. Howell was a starting pitcher). Eight had fifteen or less games remaining in their major league careers and four never threw another major league pitch. So how did the Rays turn it around the following season? They shook things up, bringing in veteran relievers Troy Percival and Trevor Wheeler, moving Howell and Jason Hammel to the bullpen, and watching as Wheeler and Balfour turned themselves around. The 2013 Rays aren’t quite at that point yet, but they can certainly take cues from their past.
The Rays have a glut of starting pitching at Triple-A. Maybe it’s time to put Alex Torres in the big league bullpen with Chris Archer soon to come. Archer has the ability to be a very good major league starting pitcher someday–but like Hammel, that could happen next year and have him fulfill the team need now. A few new names to add some variety certainly couldn’t hurt and maybe guys at Tripe-A with big league experience like Josh Lueke and Jeff Beliveau could come up and make an impact. But the most important thing to remember is that not everyone struggling right now is never going to recover. This bullpen is exponentially more talented than that 2007 bullpen–their K/9 and BB/9 are 9.3 and 4.0 while that 2007 team was at just 7.2 and 4.5–and they are certainly not this bad. Outside help will be necessary, but the bulk of this team’s turnaround will come from within. This bullpen and this season are still salvageable, and now we just have to watch as a combination of new faces and second winds take the Rays’ bullpen right back to where it belongs among the best in baseball.