Tampa Bay Rays: Bullpen Issues Off To An Uneven Start

Sep 4, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Brad Boxberger (26) throws a pitch at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 4, 2016; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Brad Boxberger (26) throws a pitch at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The bullpen is a serious issue if the Tampa Bay Rays want to compete in the AL East. As of today, their roller-coaster start is causing havoc and it could be the key to a make or break return to the post-season.

Much is made about the talented Tampa Bay Rays pitching staff and they do have five talented starters and a shutdown closer. However, of the five starters, only Chris Archer is averaging six innings a start. That leaves a lot of innings to be pitched before you even think about using your closer. Sadly, that part of the game is not going well for the Ray’s bullpen.

The Tampa Bay Rays are less than .500 in winning games where they have the lead. That means the pitchers that are coming into the game to hold the lead are not doing their job. The problem certainly is not Jesus Colome. He has eight saves in ten save opportunities and has saved 53% of the Rays wins. His occasional let down has come when the Rays have not used him in a ninth innings save situation.

That means the other six pitchers in the bullpen have not picked up their share of the load. Most solid bullpens have two setup guys in the back end of their staff. One handles the eighth inning and occasionally gives the closer a night off. The other handles the seventh or eighth inning and will pitch two innings if necessary. The Rays have the latter in Erasmo Ramirez but have struggled to find that all important eighth inning bridge to the closer.

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The answer to the eighth inning was suppose to be Brad Boxberger but he is on the 60-day disabled list until mid-June. They then turned to reclamation project Shawn Tolleson but he too went down to injuries. Next up were waiver wire pickups Tommy Hunter and Jumbo Diaz. Hunter looked promising but he too is on the disabled list. Diaz is far too unpredictable to be a setup man.

Without a legitimate setup man, the Rays turned to lefty specialist Xavier Cedeno. He has been a quality lefty specialist for the Tampa Bay Rays in the past two seasons. Every team needs a relief pitcher who can come into a game in the late innings and dispatch a couple of tough left handed hitters. Cedeno was just such a pitcher. Unfortunately, when you get a lefty specialist out of his comfort zone, he often falters and that happened to Cedeno and not only was he ineffective but he ended up on the disabled list.

Usually, a team has a second lefty in the bullpen to back up the primary specialist. The Rays didn’t see this as important and did not even invite a left-hander with any future to spring training. That left right handed ground ball specialist Danny Farquhar to pitch to left-handed hitters. Normally, a team would have a second lefty specialist and a right handed ground ball pitcher in the five and six spots in the bullpen. With Farquhar handling both roles, their options are limited. To Farquhar’s credit, he has handled them both well.

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That leaves one job for a long reliever/spot starter. Rookie Austin Pruitt won that job after a spectacular spring. It has been either feast or famine for Pruitt but I think the Rays will stick with him and hope he develops consistency.

Along the way, the Rays have toyed with Chase Whitley, Ryan Garton, Chih-Wei Hu, Jose Alvarado and Justin Marks as stop gap solutions to their bullpen woes. Only Whitley has shown short term promise and the others are just seen as fresh arms. None of them seem to be a solution to any of the bullpen slots the Rays need to fill. Top 20 prospects Jaime Schultz and Ryne Stanek are at Durham. However, Schultz is on the disabled list and Stanek is searching for command and consistency.

The bullpen is a serious issue if the Rays want to compete in the AL East. To date, they have outscored opponents by 31 runs through the first five innings. However, they have been outscored by 29 runs from the sixth inning on. Yes, a little more late inning offense would have been nice but it still falls in the lap of the bullpen.

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If only the front office would have used the $7 million dollars they spent on Colby Rasmus, Rickie Weeks and Shawn Tolleson on one or two quality relievers, the Rays might be in better shape in the win column.