We heard yesterday that Grant Balfour was back with the Tampa Bay Rays on a minor league deal just days after the team had released him. For once, a free agent chose the Rays over teams like the Chicago Cubs and Boston Red Sox, although unsurprisingly, it was never about the money. As Balfour told Marc Topkin,
"“Headed back to Tampa (Bay), want to be able to pitch back in the show with the Rays.”"
With the Rays–that doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t want to pitch anywhere else, but he feels a duty to do everything he can to give them something. This is a guy who feels guilty about the fact that he took a two-year, $12 million deal and only pitched poorly. He knows that he deserved to be designated for assignment and subsequently released, and he’s glad that he was. The move made the Rays better, giving them extra 25- and 40-man roster spots, and gives him more time to round himself back into form.
As Topkin reported, Balfour does not intend to be at Triple-A Durham for long. He is willing to commit to only two to three weeks with the Bulls, and at that time, his expectation is that he will either rejoin the Rays bullpen or join another team. The Rays would prefer a less definite stint, but they will certainly take what he is offering them. Now they have a few weeks to let him get his work in without worrying about winning or losing games to nearly the same extent. And maybe this could be an opportunity for Balfour to change his identity as a pitcher.
Balfour tried some things differently this season. With his average four-seam fastball velocity down to 90.39 MPH after it was 92.66 MPH just last season, he starting throwing more sinkers, sliders, and changeups in an attempt to survive nonetheless. With the Bulls, Balfour could work more on the sinker and changeup especially to see if they can become bigger parts of his arsenal. Fastball velocity is always ideal for a reliever, but it is possible to survive without it. At 37 years old, Balfour is certainly ready to try.
The other side of the coin is that maybe Balfour’s velocity is not gone permanently. The passing of his father delayed Balfour’s spring training debut until March 23rd, later than any season in his career as far back as data is available. His preparation for the season was rushed, and maybe he has some more arm strength in the tank. Balfour certainly won’t be mid-90’s ever again, but he showed at the end of 2014 that he could pitch well with a fastball in the 91-93 MPH range. If he gets back there, that would be a significant improvement over where he is now.
Grant Balfour will never be the Tampa Bay Rays’ closer again, and expecting him to return to a late-inning role is a stretch as well. He had an incredible six-year run with the Rays and Oakland Athletics from 2008 to 2013, but that is well in the past now. However, we certainly can’t rule out his ability to continue succeeding in the majors in a lesser capacity if he is willing to continue working. At the very least, he deserves the chance, and it is fitting that it is coming with the Rays. After they turned Balfour around in 2008, they will hope to do so one last time.
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