Brad Boxberger, a promising 24-year old relief pitcher, was sent down to Triple-A before Saturday’s game, but not before impressing in four scoreless innings. The Tampa Bay Rays needed another fresh relief arm in the ‘pen, and Boxberger happened to have an option. But they called up an equally impressive young reliever in C.J. Riefenhauser to take his place, and the 24-year old lefty struck out all four batters he faced in his big league debut. Those two are just a small part of a host of relief prospects that could soon take over the big league bullpen.
The Rays have always relied on patchwork to put together their bullpens. They have signed reclamation projects such as Joaquin Benoit and Fernando Rodney as well as unheralded players like Joel Peralta, and they have been able to experience quite a bit of success doing so. But as soon as next year, the Rays may not have to rely on nearly as many year-to-year signings to put together their bullpen. In fact, for the first time in their history, the Rays may be able to put together a stable group of relievers that stays together for multiple years while keeping their relief corps among the best in baseball.
Already in the bullpen, the Rays have a budding young reliever in Jake McGee. Right now, McGee is a setup man, but when Grant Balfour‘s deal is up after the 2015 season, McGee could very well be the man to take over the closer job. His fastball has always been a dominant pitch, but his newfound curveball has the ability to take his game to a new level. But McGee will be far from alone in regards to young reliever talent. The aforementioned Brad Boxberger has great stuff, something that he has showcased in his big league time so far. He has a bit more work to do on his mechanics, but he could be a setup man in the big leagues sooner rather than later thanks to a strong low-90′s fastball and a devastating changeup. Riefenhauser also has the same potential, but he throws left-handed. He too is not far off from establishing himself in the major leagues, with his high-70′s slider being his weapon of choice. Those are the two new faces that have surfaced in the big leagues this season, and there are more to come.
Kirby Yates has had all odds against him since being signed as a non-drafted free agent, but he has done nothing but impress in his minor league career. Last year in Triple-A, he put up a 1.90 ERA, 13.6 K/9, and 3.4 BB/9. He is undersized, but his numbers have been solid every step of the way, and he will make a nice addition to the Rays’ bullpen down the road. Steve Geltz also impressed in Triple-A last season, putting up a 2.82 ERA, 10.7 K/9, and a 3.2 BB/9. Like Yates, he has never been heralded in the minors, but he has put up solid numbers, especially in the last couple of seasons. Both are getting older, and are not exactly prime-prospect age, but both could be good relievers for the Rays in the near future, giving the Rays at least five controllable pitchers already.
Behind these guys that are already throwing in relief, the Rays have plenty of players who are currently starters that could be converted to relief. In fact, even if David Price is traded next offseason, the Rays have a core of Alex Cobb, Matt Moore, Chris Archer, Jeremy Hellickson, and Jake Odorizzi that will be together through at least 2016 unless a trade occurs. Thus, the Rays could afford to convert a starter or two to relief down the road. Mike Montgomery is already likely headed that direction, and his stuff played up in a bullpen role in the Arizona Fall League last year. Alex Colome has been a starter, but injury struggles and now a suspension could lead to a bullpen move–and he could end up being a closer. Enny Romero and Nate Karns also have the stuff to profile as late innings relievers if converted, and Merrill Kelly or Matt Andriese could be effective in middle relief roles. Even if just one of these guys became a reliever, that gives the Rays six out of seven relievers under long-term control, but in all likelihood we will see even more than that.
The Tampa Bay Rays generally go year to year on their bullpen, but they soon may find themselves with a bullpen full of controllable young players. They already have a host of talented relievers pitching in Triple-A, but if you add in a couple of starters that could be converted to relief, their future relief corps looks scary. The Rays’ bullpen is normally among the best in baseball, and they could easily continue this trend for years to come with this group of players.