Is It Time for the Rays to Shake Up Their Relief Corps?
By Robbie Knopf
At this point, it’s getting impossible to watch. The Rays’ offense has been playing well, getting the Rays out to early leads, but it seems like every time that happens, the Rays bullpen finds a way to give it all back. For years, the Rays could do nothing wrong with their bullpen–right now, they can’t do nothing right. Their team ERA is just 4.39, 12th in the American League, and their 4.80 bullpen ERA is better than only the Astros. The last time their bullpen ERA was this high? 2007, the year before their franchise-changing 2008 season. Joel Peralta and Jamey Wright have a 1.30 ERA–the rest of the Rays’ bullpen is at just 6.85, even worse than the horrifying 6.16 bullpen ERA from that 2007 team. Changes have to be made, and that has to happen now.
One move is obvious: Brandon Gomes is going to be sent back down to Triple-A. Gomes has an outstanding 15-2 strikeout to walk ratio in 11.1 innings pitched, but his ERA is just 5.56 as he has allowed 1.6 home runs per 9 innings. An obvious candidate to replace Gomes is Josh Lueke, who has a 1.06 ERA, a 13.8 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 13 appearances and 17 IP. Gomes dominated similarly at Triple-A last season, managing an 11.9 K/9 and a 2.3 BB/9, but Lueke has a higher chance of finding long-term success in the major leagues. Lueke’s arsenal is much better than Gomes’, with his fastball touching the mid-90’s to go along with a great splitter and solid curveball, and at the very least he’s fresh blood to give the bullpen a change of pace. Lueke is already on the 40-man roster, so that’s a move that could be happening very soon.
A tougher decision for the Rays will be whether to keep lefty Cesar Ramos on their major league roster because Ramos is out of options. But he has gotten shelled so far this season, managing just a 6.14 ERA and a 3-3 strikeout to walk ratio in 11 IP and 7.1 innings pitched. Lefties are actually hitting .357 against him on the young season and he’s just showing any positive signs. Ramos looked dominant in the major leagues for the Rays last season, but it was just 17 appearances and he managed just a 3.77 ERA, a 6.7 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 1.5 HR/9 in 62 innings at Triple-A. Ramos is looking more like the pitcher who managed just a 3.92 ERA, a 6.4 K/9, and a 5.2 BB/9 in 59 appearances for the Rays in 2011, and that won’t cut it. Joe Maddon doesn’t trust him anymore, bringing him into a game just once so far in May, and it’s worth it exposing him to waivers, especially since there’s a decent chance he’ll pass through them and remain in the organization.
Replacing Ramos would be fellow lefty Alex Torres, who has been unhittable as a starting pitcher so far in 2013 at Triple-A Durham, going 2-1 with a 2.08 ERA, an 11.8 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 in 5 starts and 26 IP. Torres has some potential as a starting pitcher, but Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, and maybe even Alex Colome are ahead of him on the Rays’ depth chart, it’s worth utilizing his electric arm in a bullpen role. Torres struggled mightily in 2012 after his control completely deserted him, but he has come all the way back between the end of last season, Winter Ball, spring training, and the start to this year. Torres has the ability to be an dominating bullpen arm and maybe even turn into a lefty version of what Wade Davis gave the Rays last season with a chance to be a late-inning pitcher down the road. Torres features a low-90’s fastball that could hit the mid-90’s out of the bullpen with overbearing movement, and he pairs it with a nasty slider and good changeup. Torres could emerge as an impact pitcher immediately for the Rays out of the bullpen, and the Rays will have to strongly consider calling him up soon.
A third shift that wouldn’t be too crazy for the Rays would be at least attempting to use Jamey Wright in higher-leverage roles. Wright has been outstanding so far this season, managing a 1.29 ERA, a 7.7 K/9, a 2.6 BB/9, and a 50% groundball rate in 15 appearances and 14 IP, but his aLI has been just 0.6, meaning that his appearances have featured 40% less pressure than the average relievers. Wright career aLI is 1.1, 10% above average, and he has pitched so well while so many others have struggled, so why not at least try him in the 7th inning role in which Jake McGee has struggled so mightily in? This move seems like a no-brainer.
Those three moves by the Rays would probably help the Rays’ bullpen, but even if Wright, Torres, and Lueke were dominant, that doesn’t solve the issue of the two Rays relievers whose performance has fallen completely off a cliff this season, Jake McGee and Fernando Rodney. McGee’s ERA stands at just 9.90 as he has allowed 6.5 walks and 2.5 home runs per 9 innings, and unlike 2011 when he struggled in April and was sent down, the Rays can’t send him to the minor leagues because he is out of options. The easy solution is to use him in more low-leverage situation to try to get him back on track, but could the Rays do something more extreme? Something that could be an option might be placing McGee on the disabled list if he feels the slightest pinch in his elbow, shoulder, or anywhere else and use that as an excuse to sort him out at Triple-A. Fifteen days is a long time to lose a player who was so integral to the Rays’ success last season, but if makes McGee better in the long run, it was certainly be worth it. If that happens, an option for a temporary fill-in could be lefty Jeff Beliveau, who is on the 40-man roster and has struck out 12 while walking just 3 in 5.1 innings for Durham since being acquired from the Rangers. Ironically, Beliveau is the exact opposite of McGee, featuring a mediocre fastball but two impressive secondary pitches in his curveball and changeup.
With a 5.09 ERA, a 7.6 BB/9, and a 1.7 HR/9 so far this season, Fernando Rodney has given the Rays ample reason to remove him from their closer role, at least temporarily. Joel Peralta has had success closing games in the past, most notably in September of 2011 when Kyle Farnsworth went down, and he could be a candidate to replace Rodney until Rodney gets back on track. But after all the success Rodney had last season, are the Rays really going to make that type of move this early in the year? Moving Rodney off the closer spot may take away the mental edge he gained last season and cause his struggles to become more prevalent. In Rodney’s case, him going on the DL might be more likely than him getting demoted from the closer role, at least for the time being. Rodney may be fatigued from playing in both Winter Ball and the World Baseball Classic, and maybe taking a few weeks of rest could be exactly what he needs.
If the Rays were do place Rodney on the DL, there would be only one player Rays fans would accept as his replacement on their roster, and that’s Chris Archer. With his mid-90’s fastball that might touch the high-90’s in relief and unhittable slider, Archer has the stuff to close someday–or maybe even this season. The Rays think of him as a big part of their future as a starting pitcher, but considering their bullpen need now, would they consider calling up Archer to pitch in relief? The question is irrelevant for the moment with Archer currently out with a calf injury, although he is only expected to miss one start, and the Rays’ rotation hasn’t been spotless itself this season so having Archer ready to start is important as well. But if the Rays’ bullpen keeps struggling, maybe Archer could be a player the Rays could resort to help to turn it around.
The Rays know their bullpen is better than this and have to hope that with more time, everything will be sorted out. At the same, however, every game counts and the Rays can’t keep running their relievers in the same way when they seem to blow every lead the Rays get no matter the size. Both in terms of personnel and player usage, the Rays have to do something immediately. You’ve heard what I have to say–what do you think the Rays should do to fix their bullpen problems?