A few weeks ago, we heard that right-hander Jamey Wright was deciding between returning to the Tampa Bay Rays for 2014 or re-signing with the team with whom he spent the 2012 season, the Los Angeles Dodgers. Wright made his choice, signing with the Dodgers on a one-year deal. Why did Wright choose Los Angeles? The deal was worth $1.8 million and maybe that was more than the Rays offered. Maybe he likes LA more than Tampa Bay, which certainly would not be the craziest thing in the world. But what if the motivation was something totally different–what if the reason Jamey Wright chose the Dodgers was because the Rays were offering him less of an opportunity in their bullpen? The Rays’ reasoning behind such a strategy would be if they planned to sign a higher-profile arm. Is such a move in the wings?
As it stands right now, the Rays are going to have Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, Alex Torres, Heath Bell, and Juan Carlos Oviedo take up spots in their bullpen. That is a really nifty group because each one of those pitches has the stuff to close out games at some point next season. Beyond those five, there are two spots remaining and several pitchers in the running to inhabit them. There are Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos, Josh Lueke, and Jeff Beliveau on the 40-man roster along with Mark Lowe as real candidate as a non-roster invitee. Minor league players also competing are C.J. Riefenhauser and Kirby Yates. Among the remaining options, Lowe has to be a favorite for one of the spots between his electric stuff and solid track record, and leaving one last spot for the taking. What are the Rays looking for in that last player?
Lowe is set to be a middle reliever, and with Oviedo coming off Tommy John surgery, he is set for such a role as well. We have to think that the Rays will set up Joel Peralta and Heath Bell for a set inning each game, one of the frames between the 7th and 9th. McGee, meanwhile, could pitch the 7th inning or be the fireman should a jam arise earlier in the game, while Torres seems likely to pitch in some high-leverage spots but also be used for some long relief. Essentailly the Rays’ final reliever is going to be one of two things: a long reliever to open up Torres to fill another role, or a true closer.
Lueke and Ramos are both out of options and could be candidates if the Rays needed a long reliever. Both can go multiple innings, with Ramos throwing 67.1 innings across 48 appearances for the Rays in 2013 and Lueke tossing 57.1 IP across 40 games at Triple-A. Honestly, that role is not so critical, and the Rays would not be so badly served to have either of those players fill that spot. If they failed, they have plenty of depth to replace them. Having Wright be their long man would be better, but it is worth noting that Wright pitched just 70 innings in his 66 appearances. He did have six appearances of two innings or more, but Joe Maddon preferred to use him as a matchup guy against right-handed batters. Not only is long reliever not a very exciting role, but it is also not the type of spot Wright is comfortable with. The Rays had made enough relief moves that they could not offer Jamey Wright an increased role next season, and he decided to go elsewhere in response.
At this point, the Rays do not need another reliever. If they do make another major league relief signing, however, it could very well be a closer. The most attractive option could be former Ray Grant Balfour. We discussed Balfour as an option for the Rays after his deal with the Baltimore Orioles collapsed and Jim Bowden later confirmed that the Rays had interest in him. Balfour could handle the 9th with Peralta and Bell handling the 7th and 8th, and that would make the Rays’ relief corps as scary as any in baseball. No matter when they were forced to go to the bullpen in the game, they would have a dominant reliever coming in! Even if Balfour does not return to the Rays, though, there are several other pitchers with closing experience that the Rays could add to the mix. Former Boston Red Sox relievers Andrew Bailey and Joel Hanrahan are both coming off surgeries, but they have the stuff to dominate when they return and should not cost too much to bring aboard. Then you have Francisco Rodriguez, Brandon Lyon, Ryan Madson, Kevin Gregg, Frank Francisco, and Octavio Dotel each of whom could be gotten on a lesser deal as well. That list does not even include Jesse Crain, who has never closed but has the arsenal to do so and is another possibility. Maybe Balfour is the only true closer option for next season in that group, but the Rays could easily get another late-inning reliever to strengthen their bullpen even more and provide depth behind Bell or Peralta at closer. The Rays already have a strong bullpen, and if they are going to sign another pitcher, it will be a late-inning arm. Jamey Wright was great for the Rays in 2013, but he does not fit that profile.
Jamey Wright joining the Los Angeles Dodgers does not necessarily mean that the Rays are about to sign Grant Balfour or another significant reliever. It could tell us much more, though, about the Rays’ strategy in terms of targeting relief arms the rest of the offseason. The Rays are in a position where if they do not make another signing, they will be just fine. But if the Rays do make another move towards a reliever, expect not a middle relief type like Jamey Wright but a late-inning pitcher with the ability to take an already strong Rays bullpen over the top.