The Rays Bullpen Clicks–But Will It Last?

By David Egbert

There were a lot of good news-bad news scenarios in the Tampa Bay Rays’ recent series with the Boston Red Sox, but in the end, the Rays won two out of three and that’s all that counts. However, the series did continue to show that the Rays starting pitching, once the envy of most other teams, is problematic today at best. In the three games against Boston, Rays starters threw a total of 14.1 innings. Starters going five innings or less has, unfortunately, been par for the course as they have surpassed 5 innings in just 4 of their last 17 starts. And this hasn’t been just the fill ins, Jake Odorizzi, Cesar Ramos, and Erik Bedard. Chris Archer and even the usually reliable David Price have departed early in their recent outings as well.

All the starting issues have put a lot of pressure on the Rays bullpen. Sometimes, as in Thursday’s double hitter, relievers respond with over eight innings of shutout ball, and other times, as in Tuesday’s game, they give up six runs in three innings. All and all, it adds up to a lot of innings pitched–11.2 in the case of the Red Sox series. At this rate, pitchers like Brandon Gomes and Jake McGee would appear in close to eighty games this season. and that is not a recipe for late-season success.

How do the Rays solve this problem? There is no easy answer. You can pray that Alex Cobb and Jeremy Hellickson get back as quickly as possible. However, that might be mid-June and there’s a lot a games to be played between now and then.

You bring in some talent young arms from Durham to replace journeymen like Josh Lueke and Heath Bell. Brad Boxberger has shown good stuff in two brief big league appearances, and Jeff Beliveau and C.J. Riefenhauser also looked good in limited time. Kirby Yates and current starter Mike Montgomery provide two other names to keep an eye on. This strategy worked last year when they brought up Alex Torres, and it could very well work again.

Or the Rays could establish a “two starters” scheme where the starter goes four or five innings and is automatically replaced by a long reliever or “second starter” who, hopefully, goes at least another two or three innings and maybe even finishes the game. It does not have to be an official thing like we saw with the Colorado Rockies a couple of years back, but simply having relievers ready and able to provide length could make a major difference. With Ramos, Bedard, and Odorizzi failing to surpass 5 innings every start but one this season, doing this could do wonders to help the Rays bullpen’s workload. This is one of the hot new ideas going around the league and it might be right up Joe Maddon’s alley. Montgomery could be perfect for that role.

Overall, the front end of the Tampa Bay Rays Rays bullpen has performed well. Balfour is going to be fine and McGee and Joel Peralta has been excellent. Where the Rays need to sort thing out is in the middle innings, where the starters’ difficulties have left everyone else out to dry. How to set up everybody’s roles over the next sixty days is as important as how the players themselves perform. It may prove to be one of Joe Maddon’s biggest challenges, and the Rays’ success this season depends on it.