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Jake McGee’s Injury Actually Gives Rays Additional Bullpen Flexibility

By Robbie Knopf
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It is unfortunate that Jake McGee will be sidelined for the start of the 2014 season after arthroscopic elbow surgery. McGee will likely return to the Rays’ bullpen–and presumably their closer role–sometime in May, and it is always tough to lose a great reliever for any period of time. The funny thing, though, is that there is also a positive side to the whole situation.

There is little doubt that McGee will return will electric stuff. It is much easier to throw hard as a relief pitcher than as a starter, and McGee’s arm is among the best in all of baseball. With that in mind, the greatest long-term impact of his absence could be opportunities in the closer role for others and an additional reliever getting a chance in the big leagues.

Even without McGee, the Rays have an impressive core of late-inning relievers. Brad Boxberger and Kevin Jepsen are coming off outstanding years in their own rights with the stuff to repeat them, and Grant Balfour can still rebound from his rough 2014. Thanks to that trio, the Rays should be perfectly fine in high-leverage spots even without McGee and could be spectacular when he returns.

It is always nice to have multiple pitchers comfortable tossing the ninth inning, but Balfour’s situation might be the most interesting. After all, the team can view his $7 million salary as a sunk cost and release him at any time. After they officially cut ties with Heath Bell and May 10th, Jake McGee’s return could create a similar situation with Balfour if he does not pitch well.

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Balfour’s 2015 results could end up following any part of a wide range of outcomes–he could refuse to give McGee his closer job back, or he might get released and never pitch in the big leagues again. The Rays might like the former because we saw last season before McGee was officially the closer how much of a weapon he could be helping the Rays get out of jams earlier in games. On the other side, McGee’s injury gives them a great chance to assess whether releasing Balfour is the best move for them to make.

The pitchers guaranteed a spot in the Rays’ bullpen to begin 2015 are Boxberger, Jepsen, Balfour, Ernesto Frieri, and Jeff Beliveau. Alex Colome will also be on the roster, but he may end up as the Rays’ fifth starter. With that in mind, there could be two more roles to be filled in the relief corps, and possible candidates are Jose Dominguez, Kirby Yates, C.J. Riefenhauser, and Steve Geltz.

The Rays could tap into their starting depth and give pitchers like Nate Karns, Burch Smith, and Mike Montgomery chances to win spots. Given that none of the other four candidates is a true long man, the odds may be higher than we think that one of these pitchers make it if Colome is named the fifth starter. With that in mind, the Rays could look to find a long reliever in free agency to let their pitching prospects have more time to develop.

In any event, we are used to seeing relievers go up and down between Durham and Tampa Bay all season, and the Rays could easily demote a pitcher like Dominguez or Yates down when McGee comes back. The Rays always need fresh arms, and it would be only a matter of time until they were needed again. However, if Dominguez is using his 100 MPH fastball to dominate hitters, the Rays no longer have to send him down. If they think that Dominguez is better than Balfour, it will Balfour walking out the door.

Jake McGee’s injury gives the Rays an entire month to audition their Triple-A middle relievers. Even without McGee, they have more talented relievers than they have openings, and the additional spot will give them more flexibility as they hope to gain further insight into who are keepers and who are not. McGee will certainly improve the Rays’ relief corps when he returns, but the knowledge the Rays gain about their other pitchers will also be a factor as they hope to make their bullpen’s rough 2014 look like a clear aberration.

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