Who Takes Heath Bell’s Permanent Spot In The Bullpen?
If you haven’t already caught wind, the Tampa Bay Rays designated reliever Heath Bell for assignment this morning and have called up Nate Karns from Triple-A to take his place. Karns was scheduled to start for Triple-A Durham today, but with the Rays bullpen currently exhausted, they opted to bring up Karns to ensure they can rest their bullpen. In the end, Karns is still a starter, so we can expect that he only in the bullpen for the short-term and will be sent back down in short order. Therefore, the Rays are going to need a reliever to take a more permanent spot in the bullpen after Bell’s departure. Who will this reliever be?
The Rays are currently only carrying one left-hander in the bullpen, so they are likely looking to add a second southpaw. Beliveau has already seen a couple of short stints with the Rays this year, and has two scoreless innings under his belt. He has also thrown 12.0 scoreless innings in Triple-A this season, along with an outstanding 23-4 K-BB ratio. In 2013 he was solid as well, throwing to a 2.40 ERA with a 15.0 K/9 and a 4.3 BB/9 in the minors. His stuff is not going to be overpowering despite solid strikeout rates in the minors, and his command could use a tad bit of work, but it is hard to argue with his performance over the years. Beliveau has proven himself many times over in the minor leagues, and has the ability to be more than just a lefty specialist, though that is the role he might fill with the Rays if he was called up.
If the Rays want to go with a more youthful lefty, then Rifenhauser is the choice. He has more upside than Beliveau, and should be a set-up man down the road, though he is not to that point quite yet. Like Beliveau he has a pair of big league appearances to his name this year, though has given up three runs in his 2.0 innings pitched. His 0.90 ERA in Triple-A is much better, and that on top of a 1.22 ERA between Double-A and Triple-A last season show that he is a more than capable pitcher. The main issue with calling up Riefenhauser is the worry that it could stunt is development. He is probably just as good as Beliveau right now, but throwing younger guys in the big leagues before they have reached their peak in development can often be troublesome. Thus, the Rays might rather leave Riefenhauser in Triple-A to ensure that he is more than ready when he is called up for good. Riefenhauser is currently out with an oblique injury, but with more youth than Beliveau, more sustained performance than Montgomery, and better command than Boxberger, he may be the best option of the four when he comes back healthy.
Once a consensus top-30 prospect in baseball, the left-handed Montgomery has lost his luster in recent years thanks to a decline in stuff. But, he regained some of his form in the Arizona Fall League last season, and that has carried nicely into the beginning of this year. He has posted a 3.19 ERA, 9.0 K/9, and 4.1 BB/9 as a starter in Triple-A this season. As the walk rate indicates, he still struggles with fastball command, so despite the solid performance he still is likely to end up in the bullpen. Montgomery has the ability to throw multiple innings, which is something that the Rays have lacked ever since Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard were forced to join the rotation. The bullpen currently leads the American League in bullpen innings pitched, and that is without a true long man in the bullpen. The Rays likely see Montgomery as a reliever moving forward while they see Karns as a starter, so Montgomery’s ability to go multiple innings has to put him in serious contention to take over a permanent spot in the bullpen.
Boxberger is not a lefty, which already hurts his chances of being called-up for the long haul. But, of these relievers, he probably is going to end up the best. Boxberger too has received a cup of coffee in the big league bullpen this year, where he has produced four scoreless outings to lower his career big league ERA to 2.43 over 46 appearances. He has been solid in Durham as well, throwing 9.1 innings and striking out 18 while walking 4. Boxberger throws a nice fastball that sits in the low 90’s with nice sink, but where he has really impressed is with his changeup, which is a pitch that will get big league hitters out for years to come. He also features a nice slider as well. The biggest issue with Boxberger is his command, and similar to Riefenhauser they may want to keep him in Triple-A to ensure he can iron out his issues before he comes up to the big leagues for good. He might be better than some of the relievers that the Rays have right now (looking at you, Josh Lueke), but with the potential to be even more, the Rays may be patient with Boxberger.
In the end, one of these four guys is likely going to be called up to take over a permanent spot in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen. We could even see more than that, as Josh Lueke is struggling as well and might not have much time left with big league club. I would give Montgomery the upper hand at this point, but you can make a good case for all four. It is outstanding to look at these names really, because all of them would already have been a part many big league bullpens. These guys are all going to be in the Rays future plans, and we will likely get to see at least one of them take a crack at a permanent job with the Rays.