Tampa Bay Rays closer Brad Boxberger will miss at least eight weeks after undergoing core muscle surgery. This news is a big-time blow to the Rays, as Jake McGee, who had saved games in the past, was traded to the Colorado Rockies for Corey Dickerson. Boxberger had 41 saves a year ago, and no pitcher currently slated for the opening-day roster saved more than five games in 2015.
The Rays will be looking to internal options to close out victories until Boxberger’s return. With two weeks until the beginning of the regular season, Boxberger should return in mid-May at the earliest. Alex Colome, who was slated to serve as the primary setup man, may see the bulk of the save opportunities. Danny Farquhar, Steve Geltz, or Xavier Cedeno could also see time in the closer’s role.
For a team like the Rays, who must operate on a low budget, the loss of a closer for any extended period of time is a major blow. The effects are made more severe by the fact that the Rays have embraced a strategy that rarely allows their starting pitchers, with the exception of Chris Archer, to face a lineup more than twice. Their bullpen logged the second-highest total in the American League as a result. The common line of thinking would lead one to believe that a team’s bullpen is called upon for a high total of innings when the starting pitching struggles. Not the case in Tampa. Rays starters faced an opponent a third time in only 899 plate appearances last year. The rotation for the Baltimore Orioles faced virtually the same number of “three-timers” last year, but had the second-worst staff ERA in the American League.
This strategy becomes harder to execute early in the season without a lockdown closer. The Rays do have starters who would seemingly be able to pitch into the seventh inning. Jake Odorizzi is one such name who took big strides forward last season. Matt Moore and Drew Smyly need to be kept healthy, and are unlikey to be pushed deep into games. Erasmo Ramirez is a serviceable fifth starter — exactly the type of pitcher who benefits from being pulled before hitters get another look at him.
The two-times-through-the-lineup strategy does not appear to be going away in Tampa, but the bullpen will be compromised early on. While it is not a season-long absence for Boxberger, the ‘pen will be stressed in April and May. Having Blake Snell waiting around in Triple-A could prove to be a godsend for the relief corps come July and August. The Rays still have the horses in their starting rotation to pull off a contending season, but they must make it through a difficult early season test without their closer. For a team like the Rays to contend, virtually everything must go according to plan. Boxberger’s injury is just one more hurdle stacked in front of the small-market team.