It’s almost incomprehensible just how successful the Rays have been the last several years It seemed like no matter who the Rays signed, somehow there bullpen ended up as one of the very best in baseball. Pitchers that hadn’t performed well in years would put on a Rays uniform and suddenly pitch as well as they had ever in their careers. Were the Rays getting lucky or did they just have some supernatural talent to pinpoint the relievers they could resuscitate? Whatever the case may be, this year the bubble has burst everything has fallen apart. How has this happened?
No one on the Rays thought that Kyle Farnsworth in 2011 or Fernando Rodney in 2012 would be nearly as good as they actually were. In both cases, the Rays were hedging their bets on two things: Farnsworth and Rodney’s stuff and the general variability of relievers. Even as Farnsworth and Rodney struggled in the seasons before they arrived in Tampa Bay, their arsenals were still electric, with fastballs reaching the mid-90′s or higher and an overbearing secondary pitches (slider for Farnsworth, changeup for Rodney). The Rays knew that both pitchers had something to work with, and they handed them over to Jim Hickey hoping he could help them improve their control and command and turn themselves around. Beyond that, they had both achieved success in the past, and even though they hadn’t pitched well in more recent years, relievers’ performances fluctuate so significantly, and with great stuff and relative health, they have been due for a bounce-back season. But then the Rays made a serious mistake: retaining them and believing that they had really broken through.
When a reliever pitches well, your natural instinct is to re-sign him hoping that he could continue being part of your bullpen for years to come. The issue with pitchers like Farnsworth and Rodney, though, was that they weren’t young pitchers continuing to develop or anything along those lines. They had managed one great season, and no matter how dominant they looked, that season had to be looked at as an outlier. With cheap team options worth $3.3 million for Farnsworth and $2.5 million for Rodney, the Rays basically had to exercise them, and when Farnsworth was willing to return to the Rays for just $1.25 million this past offseason, the same logic certainly applied. But bringing them back when squarely against the logic that caused the Rays to sign them in the first place, the inconsistent performance of relievers from season to season. With the Rays bringing them back, they were exposing themselves to the possibility that they were teeter back towards their bad side and collapse again.
Why were Farnsworth and Rodney any different from say Joel Peralta, who the Rays re-signed this offseason? Peralta pitched excellently in 2010 for the Washington Nationals before he arrived in Tampa Bay and was great the last two years for the Rays, giving them sufficient evidence that he was reliable enough to sign to a long-term deal at a team-friendly cost. Farnsworth had been decent the year before between Kansas City and Atlanta, but his 2011 season was his first good year since 2005, and in Rodney’s case, he had never really been that great before 2012, managing a 4.40 ERA even as he saved 37 games in 2009. With the opportunity to retain Farnsworth and Rodney in front of them, the Rays would have looked foolish to let them hit free agency. At the same time, though, even as they brought them back, they couldn’t marry themselves to the idea that they were as good as their breakout seasons in a Rays uniform. You sign players to low-cost deals first and foremost because it saves you money and gives you a chance to get incredible value at a fraction of the market price, but secondarily because it gives you the option to demote or release the players if they don’t perform. Rodney was coming back, but he’s struggling now. The Rays don’t have to keep him as closer because of his price tag or anything like that. Joe Maddon and the Rays have fallen into the trap of trusting players like Farnsworth and Rodney too much because of their one great year.
If the Rays had been lucky, then Rodney’s 2012 breakthrough would have been real and he would have been a dominant closer for a second straight year. However, they were not so fortunate and have to accept reality, move Rodney into a lesser bullpen role for the time being, and see what value if any they can extract from him. The Rays have been so successful at building their bullpen because they have removed sentimentality from the equation and have been willing to find strong values on the market even though no matter how well they performed, they were not going to be around for the long-term. Now, they’re going squarely against that, with Maddon showing an gluttonous amount of faith in players like Rodney and Farnsworth and losing game after game for the Rays because of that.
This offseason, the Rays made one real bullpen addition, and that was Jamey Wright, a pitcher with ability but certainly not a late-inning type of arm. The fact that the Rays had made just a few minor changes to their bullpen group from last year should have raised an immediate red flag for all of us–but instead we were blinded by how good Rodney had been and believed msiguidedly that the Rays bullpen would come through again. The marvel of the Rays’ bullpen and the Rays in general has not been that they have acquired such great players but that they have been able to stay so successful even as the names change. It’s time for the Rays to stop putting irrational faith in the byproducts of the process has been successful for them and instead return to the mentality that made that process work so perfectly to begin with.