The Tampa Bay Rays designated Heath Bell and Grant Balfour for assignment the last two years even though they owed each of them in excess of $5 million. They viewed the salaries as sunk costs and decided to replace both veteran right-handers with more effective arms. If that was the logic for two relatively high-salary players, shouldn’t the Rays’ decision for Ernesto Frieri be obvious? Frieri’s base salary for this season is just $800,000, and though he can also earn up to $2.35 million in incentives, he would only receive a small part of that if they released him now.
If the Rays designated Frieri for assignment, who would they replace him with? The answer is that they would have a variety of interesting options. Jose Dominguez just came back from a minor shoulder injury and looked good earlier this season. He may not be ready for the big leagues right now, but he is not far off. Another possibility would be Preston Guilmet. The Rays thought enough of him to claim him off waivers and put him on their 40-man roster, so we have to expect to see in the big leagues at some point.
Dominguez is the one guy who could replace Frieri in two days and potentially stick in the bullpen for the long-term, but if the Rays want to give him some more Triple-A time to work on his command and slider, they could instead have a merry-go-round of pitchers. Frieri’s departure would open up a 40-man roster spot, so the Rays could constantly mix the following arms: Dominguez, Guilmet, Matt Andriese, Andrew Bellatti, Everett Teaford, Scott Diamond, Enny Romero, Jhan Marinez, Jim Miller, Jim Patterson, and Matt Buschmann.
The Rays probably don’t consider all of those pitchers major league-quality, and they would want guys like Andriese, Bellatti, and Romero starting on a regular schedule at Triple-A for now. The idea, though, would be to keep whichever pitcher you call up on the active roster until a few days elapse or until he needs a day off after pitching, and then switch him for somebody else. The issue with long relievers is that often you don’t need them for extended stretches and then they need a few days off after lengthy appearances. Switching players would give the Rays a fresh arm each day.
If the Rays’ starters are pitching reasonably well, the Rays would only need the 40-man roster players (Dominguez, Guilmet, Andriese, Bellatti, and Romero) 95% of the time. The others would simply be backups in case of emergency, at least until the Rays need Frieri’s roster spot for say Matt Moore or John Jaso coming off the 60-day disabled list. Especially given that Dominguez and Guilmet could last a while because they would mostly be making short appearances, Andriese, Bellatti, and Romero would be starting every fifth or sixth day most of the time anyway.
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That would especially be true once players like Kirby Yates and C.J. Riefenhauser come off the disabled list, giving the Tampa Bay Rays more 40-man roster relievers. If someone particularly impresses, though, there is no reason that this system needs to continue indefinitely. If Yates does enough to reclaim his roster spot or Dominguez proves that he is big league ready, then the Rays could decide that keeping the pitcher in question on the roster would be more valuable than having a fresh long reliever each game. This system would simply give the Rays best situation possible if they believe that their best relief options could use more minor league time and that the rest are unimpressive.
However, this whole discussion missed a simple point: is it worth designating Frieri for assignment? The Rays would make use of his spot on the 25- and 40-man rosters, but unless the Rays think that Dominguez is ready for primetime, they would be losing a potential late-inning reliever for a bunch of long relievers. Frieri is off to a terrible start, managing a 5.00 ERA, an 8.0 K/9, a 4.5 BB/9, and a 2.5 HR/9 in 17 appearances and 18 innings pitched, but has he looked poorly enough that his Rays no longer believe that his potential can be recaptured?
Frieri’s pure stuff has actually looked fine–his fastball has averaged 92.69 MPH while his slider and changeup are both missing bats. However, his command has simply been non-existent. He isn’t throwing strikes, and his HR/9 is the fourth-worst among big league relievers minimum 10 IP. He is allowing all those homers despite only 15.7% of his flyballs leaving the yard compared to 19.3% last season. Despite that, his homer rate is actually higher than it was last season. If his HR/9 is due for any regression to the mean, it may be marginal at best.
Frieri has a 5.00 ERA, but his FIP is 6.65 and his xFIP is 5.60. He is actually getting lucky in terms of stranding runners as he has left 83.3% on compared to the league average of 72.3% and has allowed a batting average on balls in play of .222 versus the league average of .294. The sample size is still quite small–only 18 innings–but this is really a continuation of Frieri’s 41.2 disastrous frames from last season. At this point, is there any sensible reason to believe that he will recover?
In his last eight appearances, Frieri’s average leverage index (aLI) has been just .33, meaning that he has been placed into spots with 67% less pressure than an average situation. Kevin Cash doesn’t trust him, and once we are discussing a pitcher who is almost always appearing in blowouts, you might as well have a guy capable of providing more length. If Dominguez or Guilmet is a worthy bullpen option, then Frieri should absolutely be designated for assignment. Even if he would just make way for a revolving door of relievers, though, he should still be let go.