Right now is an exciting time to be a Rays fan. This offseason has seen Andrew Friedman be more aggressive than ever before. Not only has he re-signed David DeJesus, Jose Molina, James Loney, and Juan Carlos Oviedo, but he has also made moves to acquire Ryan Hanigan and Heath Bell. On top of that, the Rays have not traded David Price, and seem content to hold onto him unless they get a significant upgrade both for now and the future in return. The Rays now have every starting position player and starting pitcher controlled for at least two years, so they are already set everywhere other than the bullpen and maybe one more bench bat. They won 92 games in 2013, but add in the acquisitions of Hanigan and Bell, as well as a bounce back year from Jeremy Hellickson and growth from the team’s younger players, and the Rays already look like a scary team. But, the Rays do have one more place they need to upgrade to become a legitimate threat to win the World Series, and that is at closer.
At first look, the Rays have plenty of options to fill the 9th inning role. Both Bell and Oviedo have extensive closer experience in their MLB careers. On top of that, Jake McGee, Alex Torres, and Joel Peralta all have the ability to pitch the ninth inning, But here’s the problem; none of these options are the right choice at closer. Bell has struggled in the last two years with Miami and Arizona, and might not be effective next year. Oviedo, meanwhile, has not pitched in the big leagues since 2011 because of a suspension and an injury. Of the remaining three, Peralta has the most experience at closer, but his only real time in the role was September of 2011. Any of Peralta, McGee, and Torres might be fine, you never know how a player, especially a young one like McGee and Torres, will react to pitching in such high-pressure situations. With the players they have, the Rays could start with a bullpen-by-committee and hope that one player emerges as a legitimate closer option. But having a closer would allow all the other pitchers to get comfortable slotting further down in the bullpen, and a closer would be a significant upgrade over players like Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, or Cesar Ramos who figure to compete for the final bullpen spot.
There are plenty of options available to the Rays, both on the free agent market and the trade market. Two former Rays, Grant Balfour and Fernando Rodney, lead the crop of free agent closers. There are also options such as Andrew Bailey, Joel Hanrahan, and Ryan Madson who have been dominant in the past, but all struggled with injuries in 2013. These players could be options as bounce-back candidates, but would not make sense if the Rays are looking for a sure thing at the closer position. The Rays could target many arms on the trade market as well. Established closer J.J. Putz of the Arizona Diamondbacks is rumored to be available, although he is an injury risk. The San Diego Padres could be willing to part with Huston Street after acquiring Joaquin Benoit. Other options on the trade market could include Steve Cishek, Jonathan Papelbon, and Drew Storen Of course, the Rays would much rather turn to the free agent market and avoid having to give up a young prospect in a trade, but they would not hesitate if the right deal arose.
One big thing going for the Rays is that this offseason, the price of closers is way down. Last year, three 9th inning men signed deals worth over $20 million dollars: Brandon League (3 Years at $22M), Jonathan Broxton (3 Years at $21M), and Rafael Soriano (2 years at $28M)). This year, only one has signed for this money: Joe Nathan for exactly $20 million over 2 years. Simply put, closers are not as highly regarded as they were last year, or even a few years ago. This works in the Rays’ favor, as they do not figure to want to pay huge money for a closer. Balfour, after having his 2-year, $15 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles nullified because of an “issue” with his physical, figures to be closer to the Rays’ price range now. Also, Rodney has not received huge interest on the market, and seems to love playing in Tampa, so he might come cheaper if he is willing to give a hometown discount (at least Joel Peralta thinks he would). Given the dropping price of closers, the Rays would not have to give up as much in a potential trade as they would have had to a couple of years ago. Overall, if the Rays are willing to extend their payroll a bit from their already projected record payroll (which is reasonable given a new TV deal that nets each team an extra $25 million in 2014), they could find themselves an established closer for a reasonable price.
The Rays already have had an exciting offseason, and if could become even more exciting if they acquire an established closer to fill out their bullpen. Right now, the Rays already figure to be a serious threat in the AL, but having a great 9th inning option will be what they need to become legitimate World Series contenders. The Rays don’t desperately need a closer for their already solid bullpen, but in a year that it appears they are ready to make a run at the World Series, this move would put them in a great position. Andrew Friedman continues to look for ways to upgrade the team, so do not be surprised to see the acquisition of a closer to make the Rays even more formidable as a team.