The Tampa Bay Rays have plenty of work ahead of them as they attempt to piece together their 2015 bullpen. Ironically enough, though, they have already found a possibility for their 2016 relief corps. The Rays have signed right-hander Neil Wagner to one of the most interesting contracts you have ever heard of: a two-year minor league deal.
Neil Wagner has electric stuff, averaging over 96 MPH with his fastball in his time in the big leagues. He was at his best in 2013, when he managing a 3.79 ERA and a 33-13 strikeout to walk ratio in 38 innings pitched for the Toronto Blue Jays. Given that he pairs his four-seamer with two solid secondary pitches in his slider and changeup, there is reason to be optimistic that he can be ever better than that. Before we find out, though, we will need to wait quite a while. After being bothered by elbow problems all season, Wagner underwent Tommy John Surgery on August 19th and is expected to miss most, if not all, of next season. To counteract that, the Rays put together a contract that mitigates their risk while leaving the possibility open for reward.
Essentially, Wagner will be in Rays camp for the next two years as a non-roster invitee. That may remind you of Juan Carlos Oviedo‘s original deal, but here’s the catch: the Rays aren’t paying Wagner any guaranteed money for 2016. He could get a salary above the league minimum if he makes their team, but if he does not, they can simply cut ties and lose nothing. The Rays now have an electric arm lined up for their 2016 bullpen and nothing at all to lose.
Why did Neil Wagner agree to this deal? Considering there is so little money involved, we have to think that it is because of the Rays’ reputation for turning relievers’ careers around. While Wagner is rehabbing, he will have the opportunity to talk to Jim Hickey along with minor league coaches Marty DeMerritt and Neil Allen to prepare him for what he hopes is a breakout season. We know how good the Rays are at making subtle adjustments to pitchers that can spur them to success, and the fact that they faced Wagner in four different games should only streamline that process.
For now, Rays fans will have to file away the name Neil Wagner. We will not be hearing much about him for quite a while, and when he is finally healthy, we will be on the verge of forgetting that he signed with the team in the first place. When he is finally ready to pitch, though, Wagner can be a key piece of the Rays’ bullpen, and it will be exciting to see whether the wait will be worthwhile.