Back when the Rays initially signed Joel Peralta on December 17, 2010, chances are that no one expected that he would prove to be a key part of the bullpen. Despite putting together a career season in 2010 with the Washington Nationals, Peralta was 34 and coming off two seasons where he struggled with the Royals and the Rockies. It was difficult to think that Peralta could turn into a mainstay in the Rays bullpen.
However, that was exactly what Peralta became, quickly turning into Joe Maddon‘s eighth inning pitcher. That culminated last season, when Peralta not only lead the American league with 80 games pitched, but was the most reliable arm that the Rays had over the first two months in a struggling bullpen. Seemingly whenever Maddon needed to get a key out, or needed to stifle a rally, out would come Peralta, doing his best to keep the Rays either ahead or within striking distance.
All that work last season did lead to occasional struggles. At times, Peralta appeared overworked, and appeared to be a shell of himself. Those problems truly manifested down the stretch, when Peralta gave up eight runs over his final 9.1 innings of work, walking six batters. Peralta also had his highest walk rate since 2009, walking 4.3 batters per nine innings. He did limit the damage, striking out over a batter per inning and giving up fewer than six hits per nine, but the walks have to be at least slightly concerning.
As Peralta is creeping up in age, it may be fair to wonder whether or not his struggles were entirely due to being overworked. Despite pitching just about every other game, Peralta is going to be 38 at the start of next season. Yet, as a pitcher who relies more upon deception in his delivery and control instead of trying to throw the ball past hitters, that may not be as much of a factor as it normally would be. The Rays appear to be gambling that Peralta can remain effective despite closing in on 40; after this season, Tampa Bay holds three team options for $2.5Million each through 2017.
With the bullpen possibly in a state of flux, Peralta could potentially find himself once again thrust into the role as Maddon’s go to arm in relief. Fernando Rodney is likely to depart via free agency, having performed well enough where he may receive an offer to close elsewhere at a higher rate than the Rays would be willing to match. Jake McGee has yet to develop anything close to a secondary pitch, relying almost exclusively on his fastball. Alex Torres was dominant for most of last season, but will he be able to replicate his success? In fact, with the Rays potentially in need of a closer next season, Peralta could get a look in that role.
There may be warning signs that Joel Peralta is on the verge of running out of steam, but the Rays likely need him to stave off Father Time for at least one more season. Even with the possibility of a reworked bullpen, Peralta is still likely to serve a key role for Joe Maddon and the Rays.