From the moment the Rays acquired Grant Balfour from the Milwaukee Brewers, they knew he was something special. He was lit up to the tune of a 6.14 ERA in his 22 appearances to end 2007, but their faith wasn’t shaken. They were rewarded with a huge 2008 to help lead them to a World Series. Balfour then fell apart in 2009, managing just a 4.81 ERA–but the Rays counted on him again in 2010 and watched him have a spectacular year. Then, like just about every similar case in the history of their franchise, they let him walk. Balfour left the Rays to sign a three-year, $12.25 million contract with the Oakland Athletics. But unlike everybody else, he just kept getting better.
Balfour’s first year with the A’s saw him deliver another outstanding season. It was the second year, however, when everything started to change. Balfour began the season as Oakland’s closer because Brian Fuentes was hurt, but he lost the role in favor of Fuentes and then Ryan Cook. In August, however, Balfour reclaimed the throne and finished the season with two dominant months to help the A’s to the AL West title. Then he followed it up strongly in 2013 , holding claim to the role for the entire season with similar results. It became increasingly clear to the Rays that Balfour was the one that got away, the one that received reasonable money and had only begun to show everyone just how good he could be. The other ex-Rays relievers were one-year wonders or got too expensive, but three years passed and Balfour was an excellent pitcher right within the Rays’ price range. The Rays received a golden opportunity, and they were not going to let it slip away. Grant Balfour is back–but he is not the same pitcher that Rays fans remember.
When we hear about a player returning to the franchise with which he rose to prominence, there is a feel-good connotation but also an acknowledgement that it may not go so well. Ken Griffey Jr. returned to the Seattle Mariners, but he was a shadow of the player he once was. You bring back a player for emotional reasons and little else–or at least that is normally the case. It is great that Grant Balfour is returning to the Rays. He still lives in Clearwater, just outside of St. Pete, and Tampa Bay is his home. But this isn’t the Rays suspending their usual strategy to bring back a player they like. Grant Balfour is the conquering hero, the rare pitcher that leaves his home and comes back better than he was before. Balfour’s fastball velocity is exactly where it was when he left in 2010. His slider remains his out-pitch, and he still throws the occasional curveball. But he left a hard-thrower still trying to blow everyone away and returns an experienced pitcher who makes hitters even more miserable. He departed as a good middle reliever and comes back as an established closer. The Rays have every reason believe that Balfour’s second stint in Tampa Bay will be even better than the first.
This is not the way the story is supposed to go. The former star is supposed to come back, tip his hat, and call it quits. But Grant Balfour’s case is precisely the opposite. The Rays re-signing Balfour is the convergence of a pitcher the Rays can’t get enough of and the closer they were waiting for to complete their 2014 roster. They were never going to get a chance as good as this.