An Updated Look at the Tampa Bay Rays’ Bullpen Competition
By Robbie Knopf
Spring training has already begun, so it is a great time to talk about all of the competition the Tampa Bay Rays are set to have. With the news breaking recently that Ronald Belisario will be out for two weeks following a fracture in his non-throwing shoulder, the race for the last two bullpens spots is especially pertinent. Let’s go through the candidates and see who the favorites are entering the start of the exhibition season.
Locks: Brad Boxberger, Kevin Jepsen, Grant Balfour, Ernesto Frieri, and Jeff Beliveau plus Jake McGee when he comes off the DL
Balfour went back to Australia to see his ailing father, but every pitcher above will be on the Rays’ roster if healthy (which McGee obviously is not). The Rays could decide who will close during McGee’s absence, but there will probably not be much drama surrounding these pitchers in spring training. There is always the chance that one of them can’t get anybody out, but it is hard to believe that any of them will be designated for assignment before the regular season begins.
Middle Relief Candidates: Kirby Yates, Jose Dominguez, Ronald Belisario, Steve Geltz, C.J. Riefenhauser, Jhan Marinez
Long Relief Candidates: Alex Colome, Belisario, Mike Montgomery, Brandon Gomes, Geltz, Riefenhauser, Burch Smith, Everett Teaford, Enny Romero
The Rays have a lot of flexibility regarding the players they will choose for their last spot with two stipulations. The first is that unless he begins the season on the disabled list, Colome is a lock for the roster. Assuming he arrives in the US soon, that will likely come as a starter, but if Colome loses out to Nate Karns or Smith, he will have to be the long reliever.
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Aside from that, we need to remember that one of the two winners is likely going to be optioned to Triple-A when McGee returns while the other will head to long relief if he’s not there already. With that in mind, the Rays any non-roster middle reliever is at a severe disadvantage here, especially if he’s incapable of providing length. The Rays will not add a player to their 40-man roster unless they see him remaining with the team after McGee returns.
If Belisario was healthy, he would be a heavy favorite to win a spot. While he is not a rostered player, he combines a mid-90’s fastball, late-inning experience, and the ability to throw multiple innings. However, his injury complicates matters and he will face an uphill battle to overcome it.
With Belisario not as formidable of a candidate as expected, the three best candidates for the short relief role are Yates, Geltz, and Riefenhauser. However, Geltz and Riefenhauser both have something to gain from Triple-A time, as does the highest-upside player we have listed, Jose Dominguez. If the Rays are going to call up a middle reliever only to demote him in a few weeks, Yates seems like their guy.
For the long relief role, meanwhile, the most interesting candidate could be Mike Montgomery, who Kevin Cash praised in camp today. Acquired in the first Wil Myers trade, Montgomery has always seemed like a strong relief candidate with his fastball-changeup combination and the Rays may finally give him a chance. He certainly has an edge over Burch Smith, who needs to build innings after an injury-riddled 2014, and Enny Romero.
If not Colome, Belisario, or Montgomery, the Rays could end up going with Brandon Gomes once again. Of course, that is a dangerous proposition–the league has adjusted to him several times now. However, we are only talking about a long relief role and (major caveats aside) his splitter-heavy approach looked good last September. Especially if the Rays are just looking for a placeholder in long relief until Belisario is ready, Gomes could make sense.
On the other hand, that brings us back to Geltz. He certainly has his issues, but he has better stuff than Gomes and can also throw multiple innings. He is also already on the 40-man roster, with the Rays choosing to keep him over Gomes. The Rays would likely need to designate Geltz for assignment to make room for Gomes on the roster, and that doesn’t make any sense.
Geltz finds himself in a good spot to make the Opening Day roster as a pitcher with a promising arsenal who the Rays are also willing to send down to Triple-A. There would be no guarantees that he would remain with the Rays for more than a few weeks, but unless the Rays don’t think he is big league-ready at all, his case to make the team is quite legitimate.
As of right now, the most likely scenario is that Kirby Yates and Steve Geltz win the final two spots in the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen. Jake McGee’s return will send one of them down to Triple-A are one of Belisario, Dominguez, and Montgomery could lead to the demotion of the other. However, both Yates and Geltz would have at least a few weeks to impress the Rays, and that could make all the difference.