Tampa Bay’s Bullpen Is Set For A Rebound

My, oh my, the Tampa Bay Rays are going to look different next season. Following the many disappointments of the 2014 season, the Rays are undergoing somewhat of a roster remodeling. Predictably, the bullpen has been the focal point of several of the crucial moves made thus far.

Rays’ teams during the Joe Maddon-era prided themselves on their seemingly always stellar relief pitching, but last season was an exception. The 2014 Rays were comprised of a makeshift group of hurlers, none of which were immediately put in the proper position for individual success.

That’s partly due to several key pieces under-performing, and also because of unreasonable expectations placed on obviously declining talent. Most notably, the late-inning situation. Starting with Joel Peralta and Grant Balfour, the back-end of the Rays ‘pen could not consistently get the job done.

That led to a number of mid-season changes and role adjusting. Heath Bell, Josh Lueke, and Juan Carlos Oviedo were all escorted out the door, and Balfour and Peralta were among the relievers that saw a significantly lessened work load, especially when it came to high-leverage situations.

Fortunately, the outstanding duo of flame-thrower Jake McGee and Brad Boxberger posed as the savior of this mess. The incredible success that the two enjoyed a season ago effectively cemented their position as the new setup man/closer combination for the Rays moving forward, and their age (Boxberger, 26; McGee, 28) indicates that they both have plenty of dominant innings left in the tank.

Overall, it wasn’t that bad. Tampa Bay finished ninth in the league in relief ERA (3.71) last season, but their .224 batting average against was good for third in the AL. However, it was atypical to see a Rays’ bullpen struggle as badly as they did at times in 2014. Matt Silverman has done a tremendous job to assure that the unsatisfactory year was merely a singular occurrence.

Let’s take a look at these moves, starting with the notable subtractions. An essential part of recreating an effective bullpen is parting ways with the identifiable liabilities. That’s exactly what Silverman did with Joel Peralta and Cesar Ramos. Peralta, at 38 years of age, suffered through a miserable 2014 season, posting a 4.41 ERA in 63.1 innings pitched. Ramos adequately served in long-relief for the Rays, but clearly didn’t fit into the long-term plans for this club, and the 30-year-old is arbitration-eligible for the third time.

Silverman was able to flip Peralta and Ramos for a couple of promising young arms in Jose Dominguez and Mark Sappington. Dominguez has terrific potential, and might be in position to contribute to the big league club in 2015. But the importance of these trades is the newly-cleared roster space and openings for other, more proficient relievers to get a chance to assert themselves into a more prominent role in this bullpen.

The first addition made to this ‘pen was right-handed hurler Ernesto Frieri. Frieri was unable to stay on the field for much of the 2014 season, but when he was, he struggled to the tune of a 7.34 ERA over just 41.2 innings. However, last season was an extreme aberration for Frieri, who owns a career ERA of 3.46. Frieri has also struck out opposing batters at an impressive rate of 11.97/9 IP over the span of six Major League seasons. The Rays signed the 29-year-old to a low-risk, incentive-driven one-year contract on November 26th.

Just 20 days later, the club dealt slugging outfielder Matt Joyce to the Los Angeles Angels in exchange for another right-handed reliever, Kevin Jepsen. This is the move that, in my opinion, put this bullpen over the top. Jepsen was stupendous this past season, posting a 2.63 ERA and 1.05 WHIP in 65 innings. Opponents managed a meager .191 average against him. The advanced metrics favored Jepsen as well. He established career marks in SIERA (2.62) and FIP (2.78). He projects to be an excellent fit for a team which entered the off-season in need of another reliable high-leverage option.

These moves were simply brilliant. The needs were addressed swiftly and intelligently, and all of the sudden, this bullpen is in great shape. Once Jake McGee returns from injury in late April or early May, the Rays will have a plethora of dependable options to turn to. The resiliency of Balfour and Frieri is definitely a concern, but, if used in the right situations, there’s little doubt that the two can be effective alternatives.

With Jepsen, Balfour, Frieri, and fine southpaw Jeff Beliveau complimenting Boxberger and McGee, a rebound campaign for this group in 2015 seems inevitable. Tampa Bay also has several quality arms in the minors, including C.J. Riefenhauser, Steve Geltz, and the aforementioned Jose Dominguez. Even considering all the change, it’s been a very successful off-season in Tampa Bay.

And who knows, the Rays might not be done just yet.

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