There is no doubt that the Rays’ bullpen looks formidable going into 2014, especially after the signing of Grant Balfour. The Rays have past closers in Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo who have faltered the last couple of years, but both who have the potential to be very good. If anyone is going to get the most out of them, it will be the Rays. Joel Peralta brings experience in the 8th inning, and Jake McGee is one of the best young left-handed relievers in the game. For the final two spots, a competition will occur between the likes of Brad Boxberger, Josh Lueke, Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes, and Mark Lowe, all of whom are very capable relievers. But could the Rays make another signing or two to further bolster their relief corps even more?
Ryan Madson is one option, although he comes with no guarantees. After posting a 2.89 ERA, 2.6 BB/9, and an 8.6 K/9 from 2007-2011, Madson hasn’t thrown a big league pitch since. The Los Angeles Angles of ANaheim brought Madson in this past year on a $3.5 million dollar deal, but he suffered multiple setbacks with his injured right elbow. Given his injuries, there is a chance Madson will never throw a pitch again in the big leagues, and even if he does there is a likelihood he won’t be successful. But his past dominance is too much to ignore, and a team will bring him in and give him another chance. Madson likely will just require a minor league deal with say a $2-3 million dollar base salary and some incentives if he does pitch in the big leagues. The Rays’ have already stretched their payroll beyond limits, but if Madson returns to form, it would be worth stretching the payroll just a bit more. Maybe some if this money could be deferred to 2015, although it is highly unusual to defer money that isn’t even guaranteed. This deal would come with no risk, but could have a big reward for the back of the bullpen.
Another option is Luis Ayala, who has received little interest on the market so far this offseason. Maybe it is because of a lack of stuff (he has only struck out 6.1 batters per nine innings the last three years) combined with his age (36 years old). However, it is hard to argue with his performance. Over the last three years, Ayala has posted a 2.68 ERA and a 2.6 BB/9, both great numbers. He gets batters out through solid control, which causes him to induce a solid amount of ground balls. The Rays infield defense is outstanding (all four starters were nominated for a Gold Glove last year), so a groundball pitcher like Ayala would thrive with the Rays’ defense playing him. Ayala would also be cheap to the Rays. He made just $1 million dollars last year with the Atlanta Braves, and given his lack of a market this offseason, he could see slightly less money despite a solid 2013 campaign. He slots in well as a middle reliever in the bullpen, and gives the Rays more of a sure thing than other candidates for the final couple bullpen spots.
One more option could be lefty Oliver Perez. As I stated in my projection of the Rays’ 25-man roster, I think if the Rays went into Spring Training with the relievers they currently had, they would only carry one lefty in the bullpen in Jake McGee. Cesar Ramos wasn’t awful last year, as he posted a 4.14 ERA, but at the same time, he came in games in extremely low pressure situations. He only ever pitched if the Rays’ were way up or way down, and wasn’t even trusted to get key outs against left handed hitters, which is the whole point of having a LOOGY in a bullpen. The Rays might need to add another lefty, and Perez could be that option. He has been solid the last two years in the Mariners ‘pen, posting a 3.16 ERA, 10.9 K/9, and 3.9 BB/9. His 2013 numbers weren’t amazing, but his 3.76 ERA was better than Ramos even though he pitched in higher leverage situations, and FIP indicates his ERA really should have been around 3.26. If they Rays are content with carrying just one lefty in the bullpen, they might not want to bother with Perez. But because Ramos is an inferior big league pitcher, Perez would be an upgrade if they Rays wish to carry multiple lefties in the ‘pen. Perez hasn’t had much interest this offseason, so he could come as cheap as a minor league deal, or possibly a big league deal with a $800,000-$1 million guarantee. Overall, he could be a solid, cheap lefty option out of the ‘pen.
The Rays already have a great looking bullpen, but it could be even better. Right now the Rays have question marks at the last two bullpen spots, and while they have very capable pitchers to fill those spots, most come with some question marks. Therefore, the Rays could look outside of the organization to add another reliever or two. They certainly don’t have to, but if they can upgrade the bullpen even more for just $1 million dollars, why not do it? The Rays have already just about stretched their payroll to the max, but they could afford another $1 million commitment. There are plenty of options on the open market that could fit the Rays’ bill, some riskier than others. If the price is right, Andrew Friedman has the chance to make a great Rays’ team just a little bit better.