The Rays made their latest splash of the offseason a few days ago, signing Grant Balfour to a two-year, $12 million deal. Signing Balfour gives the Rays a standout closer to complete their already standout bullpen, and suddenly the Rays bullpen looks to be among as good as any in baseball. But is the Rays bullpen truly the best in the majors? As it turns out, that is a very difficult question to answer.
When you look at starting rotations, you can get a general idea of which staffs will be excellent and which will be OK or worse. There are a lot of starting pitchers in professional baseball, but at the end of the day, there aren’t many great ones. How many rotations have a true ace leading the way with a real number two right behind him? How many rotations can be confident they can win no matter who is on the mound and be fine even if an injury takes place? There are so many variables involved, but rotations separate themselves from one another and there is a relatively clear hierarchy of who has a good rotation and who does not. For instance, it was relatively clear entering 2013 that the Tampa Bay Rays would have a strong rotation and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim would have a weak one. We couldn’t possibly know the exact details, but we knew that the Rays had several quality starters while the Angels had nothing going on behind Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Jason Vargas. The bullpen, however, is a totally different story.
Just using the example of the Rays and Angels, the Rays saw Fernando Rodney and Jake McGee regress significantly from 2013 but Alex Torres come out of nowhere to have a huge season. For the Angels, meanwhile, Ernesto Frieri took a huge step back but ex-Ray Dane De La Rosa and Michael Kohn wound up being reliable options. Every player in baseball sees his performance fluctuate, but that is the case for relievers more than anything else. A group all coming off huge seasons can suddenly fall apart or several relievers can burst onto the scene to turn around a relief corps in an instant. We can attempt to rank the bullpens of baseball, but what actually happens might as well be anybody’s guess. Quite a few teams have appeared to assemble an impressive bullpen, and few teams don’t have pitchers with at least the capacity to succeed. But there is something special happening with the Rays bullpen, and there is a real chance that it ranks among baseball’s best.
Grant Balfour will be the Rays’ closer, but the amount of pitchers the Rays have with closing experience is astounding. Heath Bell was an extremely effective closer for years with the San Diego Padres, and Juan Carlos Oviedo had his moments as well closing for the Florida Marlins. The Rays are one of two teams in baseball with three pitchers on their roster than have 60 or move saves. The Los Angeles Dodgers have the other, but one of them is Brandon League, who already looks like a shadow of his former self. The Rays feature three pitchers with closing experience who still feature excellent stuff and will not be daunted by pressure situations. Add in Joel Peralta, who has been one of baseball’s most durable setup men the last three years, and McGee, who has one of the most electric fastballs in the game, and the Rays have five legitimate late-inning relievers in their bullpen. That will be a scary sight for opposing hitters.
Two spots still have to be filled, but the Rays have no shortage of quality candidates to inhabit them. Mark Lowe had a rough 2013 for the Angels, but he rebounded at Triple-A and could be primed to return to his previous form. Brad Boxberger features electric stuff, and heading to Tampa Bay could be the catalyst to his breakout. Then there are Cesar Ramos, Josh Lueke, Brandon Gomes, and Jeff Beliveau, and between the four of them, the Rays should find at least one effective reliever. We are not even including Kirby Yates or C.J. Riefenhauser, who are coming off huge season at Triple-A and have excellent stuff of their own. Plus prospects like Alex Colome and Mike Montgomery could head to the bullpen and take off just like Torres did last year. The Rays can fill their bullpen with name after name, and while some will be more effective than others, the winning formula is there.
Jim Hickey and the Rays coaching staff find a way to churn out effective relievers season after season to help the Rays succeed. It won’t take all that much effort to turn the current group of pitchers they have into a championship-caliber bullpen. There is plenty up in the air, and we can’t be sure exactly how things turn out. However, the Rays’ bullpen features as much experience and depth as any relief corps in baseball, and there is every reason to expect big things in 2014.