The Tampa Bay Rays have been busy making moves over the past few weeks, but an irony is that they have done very little on the free agent market. They have made a multitude of trades, but they have signed exactly one free agent to a major league contract…Ernesto Frieri. That’s it. Even in terms of minor league deals, the only notable players that have been brought in are Bobby Wilson, Eugenio Velez, and Corey Brown, hardly an inspiring crew.
While Matt Silverman is still primarily searching for offense, there are several solid free agent relievers left on the market that could be had for very little. The Rays will likely sign several more relief pitchers on minor league deals before camp begins and one of them could be a familiar face. Although he never actually pitched for the team, the Rays once traded for Jesse Crain and could bring him back for another look.
The Rays acquired Jesse Crain at the trade deadline in 2013, but he was on the DL with a shoulder strain at the time of the deal and did not recover in time throw a pitch for the team. Then Crain signed a one-year deal with the Houston Astros for 2014, but another shoulder injury forced him to miss the entire season. With that in mind, Crain is now back on the market after not pitching since June of 2013.
With Crain’s value now at an all-time low, it will take a lot less than the $3.25 million he made in 2014 for a team to sign him for this season. The reason Crain will attract interest is simple: when he has been healthy, he has been one of the best relievers in baseball. Especially with the financial commitment he will require going down significantly, Crain is a great example of the low-risk, high-reward type of move that the Rays love to make.
Even as his injury problems began, Crain established himself as a dominant high-leverage arm from 2010 to 2013. Overall in that span, he managed a 2.39 ERA across 218 innings pitched, putting up a 9.8 K/9, a 3.8 BB/9, and a 0.7 HR/9.
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Injuries started to hit Crain in the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but his numbers actually went up another notch in that span. Even though he averaged just 44 appearances per season, Crain’s 1.70 ERA, 11.3 K/9, 3.6 BB/9, and 0.5 HR/9 inspired confidence that he could be even better than before when healthy. Crain was especially dominant against right-handed batters in those two years, holding them to just a .147/.241/.212 line. Pitchers with this sort of track record are not supposed to be available for so little money.
When he is healthy, Crain’s repertoire consists of an overpowering mid-90s fastball and two solid secondary pitches in his slider and curveball. His strikeout rate has increased each season since 2007 as he has significantly improved his command of all of his pitches in that time.
Given Jesse Crain’s history of success, it would not be surprising if a team signed him hoping to immediately improve their late-inning relief corps. However, it would be quite beneficial to both Crain and his team if they could start him out in a low-pressure role and gradually move him back to his former setup role as he proved himself ready. That would be exactly the case if Crain were to sign with the Rays.
The Rays’ bullpen is almost set for the 2015 season with Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, Ernesto Frieri, Grant Balfour, and Jeff Beliveau set to fill five of the seven slots. That leaves two spots open in the bullpen until Jake McGee returns from arthroscopic elbow surgery, and Crain would be a great candidate to fill one of them if he was healthy.
Despite his shoulder injury, the Rays took a shot on Jesse Crain in 2013 because of his talent, and they could do the same for 2015. If Crain can prove himself healthy for the next season, the Rays could take a shot on him knowing that he could give them a dominant reliever at a minimal cost.