Mostly Irrelevant Breaking News: Rays Sign Andy Oliver

In the ever-continuing search for pitching depth, the Tampa Bay Rays have signed 27-year-old left-hander Andy Oliver. Oliver, a former top prospect for Detroit Tigers who made 7 MLB starts for the team, was outrighted to Triple-A by the Philadelphia Phillies after they had selected him from the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Rule 5 Draft. Because he had been outrighted to Triple-A before, Oliver was able to decline the assignment and become a free agent, which gave him the chance to join the Rays.

The Rays traded Mike Montgomery earlier this offseason, and Oliver gives them a pitcher on a quite similar career trajectory. Oliver made it to Triple-A in his first professional season and was ranked as a top 100 prospect following the year, but he was never able to figure out the minors’ highest level. He managed just a 4.71 ERA in his first year with the Toledo Mud Hens and a 4.88 ERA in his second. Then, even as his ERA improved to 4.05 with Triple-A Indianapolis in 2013, he walked a scary 8.1 batters per 9 innings.

The Rays talked about moving Montgomery to the bullpen this spring, and the Pirates, to whom Oliver was traded in December of 2012, did actually put him in relief last season. He managed a fine 2.53 ERA in 64 innings for Indianapolis, but his 12.0 strikeouts per 9 innings were accompanied by a 6.6 BB/9. That was enough for Oliver to be selected by the Phillies, but he was unable to do enough to stick with the team.

Andy Oliver still has real stuff. His fastball continues to reach the mid-90’s, and his slider remains an effective pitch. He also throws a changeup, although it is clearly his third offering. There remains a chance that he can be an effective reliever and maybe even reach the late innings. However, will he ever find a way to reign in his control? The fact that the Rays signed Oliver so quickly after he left the Phillies may imply that they have a adjustment in mind for him.

Oliver will likely head to Triple-A Durham, and it will be interesting to see how he does. At worst, he will be simply another arm in the Bulls’ relief corps, but if he does well, there is reason to believe that he could be an impact pitcher for this team. Admittedly, the chances of that cannot be very high, but the Rays have nothing to lose seeing if Oliver can turn into something.

The current state of Tampa Bay Rays lefties is a little sketchy–Jake McGee is hurt, Jeff Beliveau doesn’t have great stuff and might regress, and C.J. Riefenhauser hasn’t been the same since an oblique injury last year. Oliver is another name to add to the mix, and his repertoire is better than both Beliveau and Riefenhauser. That means nothing if he can’t throw strikes, but it is always nice to have additional depth.

The signing of Andy Oliver makes no difference for the Rays right now. I termed this breaking news as “mostly irrelevant” because this is a developing situation and Rays fans certainly have no need to be aware of it right away. Even so, Oliver is a low-risk acquisition with the chance for upside. The Rays have something in mind for Oliver, and if he is able to break through, the team will have itself an interesting pitcher.