Evolution of the 2017 Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen

Apr 20, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Tommy Hunter (49) throws a pitch at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Detroit Tigers 8-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Apr 20, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Tommy Hunter (49) throws a pitch at Tropicana Field. Tampa Bay Rays defeated the Detroit Tigers 8-1. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The ever-changing evolution of the bullpen marches on, as injuries have rookies now playing significant roles in what was once one of the Tampa Bay Rays keys to their success.

At one point in time, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen was one of the best in the American League. Despite losing significant arms whether through trades or free agency the Rays front office always seemed to acquire replacements that were as good or even better.

The days of Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Kyle Farnsworth, Roberto Hernandez, J.P. Howell, Jason Isringhausen, Trever Miller, Troy Percival, Joel Peralta, Fernando Rodney, Dan Wheeler, and Alberto Reyes to name just are few are all history that help propel the bullpen to prominence.

Forward to today and the Rays bullpen consists of rookies – Ryne Stanek and Jose Alvarado, Tommy Hunter, Danny Farquhar, Chase Whitley, Ryan Garton and closer Alex Colome.

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The bullpen looked promising heading into 2017 that would include holdovers Brad Boxberger, Xavier Cedeno, Enny Romero, Erasmo Ramirez, Alex Colome and Danny Farquhar. The offseason included the Rays signing free agents Tommy Hunter to a minor league deal, former Texas Rangers closer Shawn Tolleson to a major league deal hoping that both could play a significant role in upgrading the bullpen and Diego Moreno, who was signed to a minor league deal. Additionally, Kevin Gadea was selected in the Rule 5 Draft and would automatically have a spot on the 25-man roster.

As the Rays began spring training, there were bullpen concerns specifically surrounding Brad Boxberger, who had spent the majority of last season on the disabled list. However, he showed up to spring training healthy and though his issues from last season were behind him, the Rays took a slow approach with him.

Whether or not their approached hindered his workouts and played a part in his injury that would require extended time on the DL, will never been known. What is known is that the Rays needed Boxberger to anchor the bullpen and while there is no timetable set for his return yet, there are signs of getting closer as Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times reports that Boxberger is scheduled to pitch live batting practice next week in Port Charlotte.

There were concerns surrounding Tolleson who had spent time on the DL in 2016 with back issues and demoted to the minors before his release and as well, Hunter who had two stints on the DL with Cleveland (recovering from offseason core-muscle surgery and an injury sustained at home later on) before the Indians released him.

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Tolleson was deemed healthy when he reported to spring training, but back issues limited his appearances to only five games and would begin the season on the 60-day DL with a June return forecasted. However, we now know that Tolleson is lost for the season and the majority of 2018 (the Rays have control, though he was signed to a one-year deal) so there is a possibility he may never throw a pitch for the Rays.

In the interim, the Rays selected Jumbo Diaz off waivers from the Cincinnati Reds and along with rookie Austin Pruitt adding them to the 25-man roster to open the season. Heading to Durham would be Chase Whitley, Justin Marks and Ryan Garton.

In a game against Houston in May, while attempting to cover first base Hunter came up lame as he strained his calf and would be placed on the DL, with a prognosis of a possible June return. Hunter had already appeared in 10 games for the Rays, posting a 1.08 ERA. The good news is that Hunter has been activated off the DL, and pitched one inning against the Angels on Thursday.

Bullpen mainstay Xavier Cedeno struggled from the moment the gates opened as he had problems getting batters out. Through five appearances, facing 16 batters he had given up two runs on four hits, with four walks and no strikeouts setting up his 1-1 record with a 3.86 ERA before heading to the 10-day DL in late April.

The initial diagnosis from Dr. Koko Eaton the Rays team physician for Cedeno was forearm tightness and that he could miss significant time. After getting a second opinion from Dr. James Andrews, he agreed with Eaton of the diagnosis and that no surgery (Tommy John) was needed. His return to the Rays is expected to be sometime in late June as he was moved to the 60-day DL in order to make room for Michael Martinez.

Gadea, whom the Rays selected in the Rule 5 Draft, was about to be returned to the Mariners – but elbow tendinitis prevented sending him back and instead he was placed on the 60-day DL.

Moreno and Diaz were the latest to head to the DL. Moreno who last pitched in 2015 with the Yankees was called up two-weeks ago from Durham, taking the roster spot of Austin Pruitt. After five appearances (0-0, 4.76) covering 5.2 innings pitched Moreno was placed on the 10-day DL with shoulder bursitis.

With the return of Tommy Hunter, Diaz was placed on the 10-day with right arm fatigue retroactive to May 23, which means that he would be eligible to return on June 2. Diaz, who the Rays claimed off waivers during spring training from Cincinnati, was 0-3 with a 5.49 ERA in 21 appearances (19.2-IP). Over this span, he has allowed 13 runs (12 earned) on 21 hits with 17 strikeouts and 12 walks. Speculation on my part is that when he is eligible to return, the Rays will cut him loose.

Welcome To The Majors Kid

Rookie Chih-Wei Hu also had a cup of coffee, as he made two appearances during two stints. His first came in April when Tommy Hunter went on the DL and one day after being returned to Durham, he was recalled as Erasmo Ramirez was placed on paternity leave in May.

Jose Alvarado was promoted from Double-A Montgomery and had never pitched higher than Class-A, but his impressive spring training pressed the Rays to promote him because they needed a left-hander in the bullpen. So far, in 10 appearances (0-0, 3.72) over 9.2-IP Alvarado has allowed four runs on four hits with four strikeouts and a walk. He has held opponents to a .172 average.

Ryan Stanek made his way to the majors with his high heat and the demotion of Blake Snell. done an exceptional job. Before making his way to the Rays, Stanek was 1-0 with a 2.00 ERA (18-IP) in six appearances with 25 strikeouts, six walks and two saves for Durham.

In six appearances (0-0, 2.25) covering four innings, Stanek has allowed one run on three hits, with five strikeouts and five walks. Promoted from Durham, Stanek began his transition from starter to reliever last season and has

Austin Pruitt, who made the team out of spring training, had been a starter throughout his career and was jettisoned to the bullpen where he struggled mightily allowing 12 runs (10 earned) on 20 hits in his first six appearances.

When it was all said and done, Pruitt (3-1, 7.52) had allowed 21 runs (17 earned) on 35 hits with 18 strikeouts and five walks before being optioned to Durham where he would continue his transition as a reliever.

Just A Memory

Additionally, Justin Marks who was one of the last pitchers cut out of spring training had a small cup of coffee before the Rays designated him for assignment (out of options) as he could not return to Durham without going through waivers first. The Rays would lose him via waivers to the Dodgers.

Next: Rays Reinforcements Getting Closer

Since returning to Durham, in four appearances (5.2-IP), Pruitt’s line is 0-0, with a 1.59 ERA. He has allowed just one run on four hits, with seven strikeouts and no walks and he is 1-for-1 in saves opportunities.