The Rays are the one of the best teams in baseball at developing starting pitching. It is the quality that has kept them competitive year after year with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. Relief pitching has been another story. It has been the stepchild of the minor league system. The only two pitchers out of the Rays system that have made their mark as relievers in the big leagues are Jake McGee and Alex Torres, both of whom ended up in the bullpen after proving inadequate in the starting rotation. But the 2013 season proved to be a little different. Three Rays AAA relievers caught the eyes of evaluators and a couple more showed some promise at lower levels. Let’s take a look at the top five relief prospects in the Rays system and see the homegrown relief arms primed to make an impact in the Rays bullpen before long.
1. Steve Geltz (2013 level: Triple-A): Geltz came to the Rays in an under-the-radar trade with the Angels for Dane De La Rosa. De La Rosa had a big year in the Angels bullpen in 2013, but Geltz is five years younger and poised to make the trade into a win for the Rays. He’s a power arm with a 93-95 MPH fastball and an above-average 85 MPH slider that the Rays got him to rely upon more in 2013. He also throws a changeup, and he threw a curveball in teh past as well. Geltz’s has kept batters guessing with his arsenal, especially as his command has improved, and pairing his electric stuff with additional polish makes him an interesting pitcher. At Durham last year, he posted a 2.82 ERA with an 80/24 strikeout to walk ration in 67 innings. Scouts liked him enough to put him on the Minor League All Prospect team. Look for him to show up in spring training next year with a shot at a job in the Rays bullpen.
2. C.J. Riefenhauser (Double-A/Triple-A): Riefenhauser is not a power pitcher but he just gets people out. He has an ok 89-90 MPH fastball but it’s his sharp slider that gets batters out on both sides of the plate. His combined 2013 numbers with Durham and Montgomery were an impressive 1.22 ERA with a 70/19 strikeout to walk ratio. He was voted to the Minor League All Star team and was in the Futures Game. The Rays will probably give Riefenhauser a full year at Durham next season but don’t be surprised if he gets a call up at some point in the season when the Rays need a left-handed reliever.
3. Kirby Yates (Triple-A): Another power arm like Geltz,, his fastball sits at 92 MPH and tops out at 94, and he has a mid 80’s slider that is a swing-and-miss pitch. At Durham he posted a 1.90 ERA with a 93/23 strikeout to walk ratio. Yates has spent five seasons in the Rays system after signing as an undrafted free agent and his impressed at each stop. It’s hard to tell exactly when he will get his shot at the Rays bullpen but if continues on this path, he will get one.
4. Lenny Linsky (High-A): A second round draft choice in 2011, Linsky stood out for a 92-94 MPH fastball that sinks and an equally as good mid-80’s slider. He started his career in 2011 with an impressive pro debut, managing a 1.23 ERA and a 30-7 strikeout to walk ratio in 29.1 innings pitched. However, a shoulder injury derailed his season in 2012 and set him back significantly as a pitcher. He looked a lot better this year with a 3.22 ERA in 72 innings, but even then, his strikeout to walk ratio was just 52-27 in 72.2 innings pitched. His stuff has taken a step back, with his fastball often hitting 91-92 MPH and his slider losing its bite. Once thought of as a future setup man or closer, Linsky is unlikely to ever get there now. But at the end of the day, what you really like about Linsky is that he is a groundball machine and that alone usually gets a relief pitcher a job. Hopefully, he will stay healthy in 2014 and continue to move up the ladder.
5. Nick Sawyer (Low-A): Sawyer is on this list because of his raw talent and not the year he turned in in 2013. A 2012 draft choice out of junior college, he has a good-looking 94-96 MPH heater and an mid 80’s curveball with a short, sharp break. His deceptive motion makes it even tougher on hitters as it makes it difficult to pick up his pitches. And in 2012, Sawyer showcased just how good he could be, putting up a 0.28 ERA in his 2012 debut primarily at Rookie Ball. In 2013, though, Sawyer started out with a bang at Bowling Green but ran into command issues mid-year and ended with a 4.22 ERA and an unacceptable 80/60 strikeout to walk ratio. The good news is he only gave up 33 hits in 59 innings, and obviously the Rays will not give up on a pitcher with his stuff. He will still probably move up to High-A next year as they hope his control eventually clicks.
The Rays have a number of minor league starters who may eventually end up in the bullpen. The most prominent among them is Mike Montgomery. Montgomery is a huge talent and in 2012 was rated the number 1 Royals prospect for years. Once featuring a 95 MPH fastball, he tried to change his delivery and the wheels came off the bus. He made strides to come back in 2013 but with a 7-8 record and a 4.72 ERA, it was still another uneven year. Like fellow lefties McGee and Torres, his future may be in the bullpen. Those three certainly would look nice as a late innings trio. Another candidate is Jesse Hahn. Highly regarded with a ton of stuff including a 99 MPH fastball, Tommy John surgery in 2011 derailed his start in the Rays organization. This year he had a good season with Charlotte but his endurance was lacking as he went 5 innings just twice all year. The Rays will give him a chance to start, but if he runs into more injury problems again, moving his electric arm to the bullpen will be awfully tempting.
The Rays don’t have nealry the depth of pure relief pitchers as they do with starting but it’s nice to see them working on the case. Maybe some spring we be wondering which home grown relievers they will send down rather than how Andrew Friedman and Joe Maddon are going to turn another group of misfits into a decent bullpen.