After visa problems prevented Juan Carlos Oviedo from reporting to camp until this week, suddenly one more bullpen spot in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen became up for grabs. The competition for that spot is going to be fierce. Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, Joel Peralta, and Jake McGee will be the high-leverage relievers for the Rays this season. Behind them, Cesar Ramos will likely make the team as a long reliever, and Josh Lueke is also a favorite because he is out of options. If Oviedo had been ready, the Rays could not have accommodated any other reliever without designating Ramos or Lueke for assignment. Now the Rays have a spot to play with and three talented arms with the ability to fill it. Who has the advantage to make the team?
Seemingly every year, the Rays have a minor league free agent come in and make the team out of spring training. Last year, that pitcher was Jamey Wright, and Mark Lowe hopes to follow suit. If the minor league contract was not enough of a parallel, Lowe is wearing Wright’s number 35. Unlike Wright, though, Lowe does not enter 2013 with a string of solid seasons under his belt. Instead, he managed just a 9.26 ERA in 11 appearances with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim before he got released. Lowe has good stuff, throwing a fastball touching the mid-90’s to go along with a slider that has its moments. But his command will always be an issue, and it is questionable how effective Lowe could be for the Rays this season. Lowe signed a minor league deal without an opt-out clause that we know about, so the Rays can keep him at Triple-A without even adding him to the 40-man roster. Lowe is a solid pitcher, but the Rays have no reason not to take that opportunity and stash him in Durham until the need arises.
The Rays acquired Brad Boxberger from the San Diego Padres this offseason, and he came with a shiny 2.72 ERA and 57 strikeouts in 49.2 big league innings. The downsides: 5.6 walks per 9 innings, a 1.1 HR/9, and a .790 OPS against right-handed compared to .687 by lefties, bizarre because Boxberger is a right-handed pitcher. At least in the latter category, Boxberger has seen the opposite trend this spring training, managing a 9-1 strikeout to walk ratio against righties compared to just a 3-4 mark against lefties. But while Boxberger getting righties out is important, the Rays are not dying to call up a middle reliever with inconsistent command who has an option remaining. The good news: the spring training statistics and even the regular season statistics do not tell the whole story.
Boxberger features a fastball in the 92-94 MPH range with good movement, a dynamic changeup, and a slurvy breaking ball that can be effective at times. He has the arsenal to succeed in the major leagues, and this could be the year that everything clicks. Boxberger will get his chance–but the Rays have nothing to gain by starting Boxberger in their bullpen and putting the pressure on him right from the start. They can have him continue to work on his command at Triple-A until his opportunity arises. In any event, why would the Rays call Boxberger up just to potentially send him back down when Oviedo is ready? No prospect wants to deal with that.
What the Rays need is a reliever who they have no issue sending back down yet has the ability to be an impact reliever for them while he is around. That pitcher is Brandon Gomes. It has been three years since Gomes broke into the major leagues, and he still has yet to nail down a role even though he will turn 30 in July. After a 2.92 ERA in his rookie year in 2011, he has managed just a 5.84 ERA in 41 appearances the last two years. His fastball has been unimpressive between its low-90’s velocity and his inability to command it. His slider and splitter got their swings-and-misses, but they were never good enough to make up for his fastball. This spring, however, Gomes has looked like a different pitcher. He has simplified his delivery, helping him locate his pitches. Just as important, he has scrapped his slider for a cutter, providing him with a pitch that can both miss bats and take the load off his fastball. Gomes’ fastball might always be an issue, but the cutter raises his profile significantly. He is ready for another chance.
Brandon Gomes is the pitcher most likely to capitalize after Juan Carlos Oviedo’s injury. The Rays have no reason to keep him at Triple-A knowing that he is ready to contribute now and can be sent down if necessary when Oviedo returns. Lowe’s ability to be an impact player not on the 40-man roster and Boxberger’s continued work on his command are enough reason to keep them in the minor leagues. This is Gomes’ chance to finally establish himself in the Rays bullpen, and if he is pitching well, the Rays will have an interesting decision to make with Josh Lueke when Oviedo comes back.