The constrast between the Rays’ final game of 2012 and their final game of 2013 is startling. In Game 162, 2012, Fernando Rodney came into the game to record his 48th save and lower his ERA to 0.60, his dominance providing a reminder that the Rays would be fine even after a lost year. In ALDS Game 4 of this year, however, it was Rodney reminding everyone that not only were the Rays about to lose, but that their 2014 effort will require a wholescale dismantling. With players cycling in and out every year, the Rays have put emotion aside except in the rarest of cases, almost never overpaying to bring a player back no matter how good he was. But Rodney was an excuse to be emotional. He had his incredible year, and then the Rays had an option on him for just $2.5 million for 2013. Between his tilted cap, arrow-shooting antics, and his incredible pitching, Rodney became a fan favorite and bringing him back seemed to be the perfect storm. Evidentally, it was not.
Rodney was not so bad this season, managing a 3.38 ERA and 37 saves in the regular season, but his walk rate nearly than tripled from 1.8 per 9 innings to 4.9. The Rays helped Rodney adjust, reigning in his poor control and allowing him to harness his high-90’s fastball and devastating changeup for that incredible 2012. But then the league adjusted back, and Rodney returned to being the enigmatic pitcher he was before. What is it about the Rays that make a player have a breakout year yet that player so often falls apart the following season? We know it isn’t just luck because the Rays have done it countless times, but why is it that no matter how good the Rays get, they end up searching through the bargain bin once again the following season? You have Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, and the parade of young pitchers starring year after year on the whole. But why do the players like Rodney, Kyle Farnsworth, Casey Kotchman, and Jeff Keppinger always fade out as quickly as they had burst onto the scene?
Where should the Fernando Rodney era in Tampa Bay teach us? Breakout years are so rarely breakthrough years–there are by no means indicative of any sort of sustained success. The Rodney era was a chance to put together a more stable team, keeping the core of the bullpen for another playoff run believing that the strong 2012 performance could carry over into 2013. Rodney, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and Kyle Farnsworth all returned, and the Rays thought they could be successful. Insetad, Rodney was up-and-down, Farnsworth was cut, and Peralta and McGee both imploded on several occasions. The Rays have mastered the art of building a major leaguee bullpen on a budget, changing the names but not the performance year after year. Then in 2013, they went against that and paid the price. It is the Rays’ process and not their individual relievers that have made them so successful year after year. The Rays have to look forward to the next Fernando Rodney knowing that the odds are that the current one will fall apart. When they fail to do that, bullpen collapses like they experienced are par for the course.