The battle for the final couple of spots in the Tampa Bay Rays’ bullpen has been one their biggest storylines this spring training. Coming in to the spring, it appeared that there were two spots open, with Josh Lueke and Cesar Ramos being heavy favorites to win these spots because they are both out-of-options. But, Juan Carlos Oviedo, who was expected to claim a bullpen role, just reported to camp because of visa issues and might not be ready for the start of the season. Lueke has also looked very poor so far this spring, and there is a very real chance his minor league success is never going to translate to the big leagues. This could open the race for Brad Boxberger and Brandon Gomes, both of whom have played very well this spring, to stake their claim on one of the final jobs in the bullpen.
Boxberger, who was acquired by the Rays this offseason from the San Diego Padres, has posted a solid 2.72 ERA in his first 42 big league appearances. This spring he has also been very good, posting a 2.25 ERA in his 4 appearances while also striking out 6 batters. He features a solid fastball that sits in the 92-94 MPH range as well as a decent curveball, but where he has really impressed this spring is with his changeup. Coming into the spring it was known that it had the potential to be a very good pitch, but he had struggled commanding it for the most part. This spring he has showed solid command of the pitch, and it is has looked like a pitch that can get major league hitters to swing and miss with regularity. After entering the spring as an outside candidate for the bullpen because of the fact he has an option remaining, Boxberger could very well be pitching himself into serious consideration for a bullpen spot.
Gomes too is having a great spring, as he has given up no runs, struck out 6 batters, and walked just 1 in his 4.0 spring innings. After struggling against left-handed hitters in his career (.936 OPS against), Gomes has worked hard to develop a cutter that can get lefties out. Early reports on the pitch have been good, and that is a very encouraging sign going forward. Even with the cutter, Gomes’ arsenal is never going to be too impressive. But if he can limit the damage from lefties with his newfound pitch, he can use his solid command (2.6 career BB/9 in the minors) to make a living in the middle of a bullpen. He may not have the upside that Boxberger does, but with a solid spring performance he could be pitching his way onto the 25-man roster.
Both of these guys’ performances are creating a great problem for the Rays this spring. At the outset of the spring, it appeared that they were mainly in camp to provide friendly competition, with both only having an outside shot at cracking the opening day roster. However, their solid performances and improved arsenals are going to make it tough for the Rays to send them back down to the minors. Of course, one of them could win a spot out of spring just to be sent down once Oviedo is ready, but even this opportunity would give them another chance to force the Rays to make a very tough decision on who to keep around. Brad Boxberger and Brandon Gomes are making the most of their opportunity to impress the big league coaching staff. We will soon if one or both will be rewarded with a big league roster spot because of it.