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An Early Look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ 2015 Bullpen

By Robbie Knopf
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The 2014 MLB offseason has yet to begin, but the Tampa Bay Rays have already made one move to start fortifying their bullpen and several more could be on the way. Let’s take a look at what the Rays’ relief corps would look like if they went solely with the players they have now and also assess how much external help they still need to find.

Locks: Jake McGee, Brad Boxberger, Grant Balfour, Michael Kohn

In McGee and Boxberger, the Rays have a strong foundation from which to build their bullpen. With McGee under team control for the next three years and Boxberger set to be around for the next five, the Rays are set to have a dominant back end of their bullpen for a long time. Of course, the question is what will happen behind them.

Grant Balfour looked better to end the season, managing a 2.25 ERA and a 13-2 strikeout to walk ratio in his final 11.2 innings pitched. We can’t read too much into that–it is a small sample size and Balfour was pitching in lower-leverage situations than usual. However, it was good for the Rays to get some additional reasons to be encouraged to go along with something they have exploited for years: the fluctuating performances of relievers.

Kohn is easily the most questionable of these four, but since the Rays gave him an MLB contract, it will take an injury for him not to be in their Opening Day bullpen. He certainly has the stuff to warrant such an opportunity, averaging 95.38 MPH with his fastball to go along with a slider and changeup. Granted, his control needs plenty of work, but the Rays hope to make him their next successful reclamation project. He should be a part of their relief corps, but it may unrealistic to think of him as anything more than a middle reliever.

In the Mix: Jeff Beliveau, Joel Peralta, Alex Colome, Kirby Yates, Cesar Ramos, Brandon Gomes, C.J. Riefenhauser, Steve Geltz, Adam Liberatore

Once we say that McGee, Boxberger, Balfour, and Kohn will be on the team, it makes it easier to determine what else the Rays need in their bullpen. Missing are a lefty specialist, a long reliever, and one more right-handed middle reliever.

For the lefty specialist role, Beliveau has lapped the field after his strong performance with the Rays. He falls just short of being a fifth lock for the bullpen.

Another shoe-in for the roster is Colome because he is out of options. However, it remains to be seen whether he will be the Rays’ fifth starter until Matt Moore returns or a reliever from the start. It makes sense for the Rays to give Jeremy Hellickson a chance to restore his trade value at the beginning of the year, making it more likely that Colome will begin the year in the bullpen.

That answers one question, but prompts another: will the Rays make Colome a long reliever because he is still a long-term starter or will they use his electric arm in shorter stints? Either way, it seems pretty clear that the Rays should not exercise Peralta’s option. They could accommodate him–and they could always bring him back on a minor league deal–but there is no need for them to spend $2.5 million on a player who may not be the best fit for their roster.

If the Rays want a long reliever in addition to Colome, Ramos is the incumbent in the role, and we know who he is. He’s a halfway-decent reliever capable of providing length, but he is never going to be a real option for bigger situations.

A more interesting option could be Riefenhauser, who tossed at least 2 innings in 13 different games at Triple-A and has more upside than Ramos. After his up-and-down season at Triple-A Durham in 2014, though, he seems likely to begin 2015 back there.

We also should mention Gomes. He showed flashes of being effective in a variety of roles, tossing at least 2 innings six times for the Rays. Of course, the issue is that he has a poor big league track record.

That leaves Yates, who looked decent for the Rays this season, but has limited potential. He has major issues against left-handed pitching and makes a few too many mistakes against righties as well. He is a decent middle reliever, but it could make sense to stash him at Triple-A in favor of a better option.

Geltz and Liberatore could also receive chances in spring training, but they seem to be clearly behind the rest of the pack.

The best bullpen the Rays could make right now is probably McGee, Boxberger, Balfour, Kohn, Beliveau, Colome, and either Peralta or Ramos. With neither Peralta nor Ramos an ideal fit (and because it makes little sense to exercise Peralta’s option), it is clear that the Rays should sign at least one more reliever. One with the ability to pitch both in longer or shorter stints would be preferable, and pitchers who fit that profile are certainly out there. The Tampa Bay Rays have most of the pieces of a good bullpen already on their team, but they need one more arm, and it will be interesting to see who they sign.

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