Rays 2010: Relieve Pitchers

We’ve reached the final article in this series leading up to the 2010 Tampa Bay Rays season. But the last unit is arguably the most important for the team’s success. Any fan who has watched the team for the past three years have seen how important the bullpen is. There was no denying the impact the improved bullpen had in 2008 and there is no doubt it lost the team too many games in 2009. Thanks to the trade for Rafael Soriano there is reason to believe the unit will be a lot closer to its 2008 level than 2007 or 2009.

When Troy Percival got injured last year it threw a big wrench in the plans for the bullpen and perhaps the coaches weren’t good enough at re-organizing the unit. Check out this mlb.com article for a couple of very interesting quotes from Dan Wheeler and James Shields. When Percival went down they went away from having defined roles and instead played to create the best possible matchups. While that might not seem like a bad idea it created confusion among the pitchers and I believe a big reason why they seemed to be wearing down quick during the season was the fact they always had to be mentally ready to be called upon.

With Soriano on the team they will be going back to having more defined roles, which will probably be something along the line of this:

Closer – Rafael Soriano

I really like some of the interviews I’ve heard from this guy. He seems to be a great mix of a soft spoken, calm guy and a confident competitor who wants to be the guy in the spotlight in the 9th inning. As he said to the St. Pete Times yesterday, when they asked him about how he felt about all the great hitters in the AL East:

“I do not care,” Rafael Soriano says softly, firmly. “If I am healthy, if I am on the mound, I do not care who the hitter is. I am good, too.”

That’s exactly the kind of attitude you want from your closer and it is backed up by comments from his former teammate in the article I linked to above. When it’s time, he wants the ball. Last year with Atlanta he had 27 saves in 31 save opportunities. Hopefully he can live up to the hype.

Setup man – Dan Wheeler

Wheeler seems to be the guy we will see a lot of in the eighth inning. In 2007 he was a closer for the Astros for a while when Brad Lidge was injured and he has had success as a late setup man before. He doesn’t have blazing power with a fastball just barely reaching 90 mph at times. Instead he  utilizes good control and accuracy and mixes it up with a slider, curveball or changeup. His ERA of 3.28 in 2009 is a little bit high, but that might change just by him being more comfortable in his role on the team. It certainly seems like from his comments that he is one of the players who really look forward to the change.

Middle relievers – J. P. Howell and Grant Balfour

Howell and Balfour are two different types of pitchers who will probably mainly be used around the 6th and 7th innings. Howell hasn’t got great power but he has got a decent changeup and curveball he uses a lot along with the fastball. Balfour on the other hand relies almost completely on his fastball, which he is able to send off at about 94 mph. They compliment each other well and give Maddon some different options to work with. Both players had really good seasons in 2008 but dropped off a little last year. The Rays will need them to step up their game a notch.

Long reliever – Lance Cormier

Cormier had a decent 2009 season with a 3.26 ERA, the lowest of his career and two saves in two opportunities. He is a guy who has bounced around the league a bit since he made it to the majors in 2004 and last year was his first season with the Rays. His main pitch over the past two seasons have been his cutter which he mixes up with a fastball or curveball.

Left handed specialist – Randy Choate

Randy started his career with the Yankees and got his major league debut in Tropicana Field, retiring the only batter he faced. That was back in 2000 and since then he has spent four years in New York and another four years in Arizona before he joined the Rays in 2009. He played in 61 games, got five saves in five opportunities and had an ERA at 3.47.

Other players worth watching: Andy Sonnanstine, Dale Thayer and Jeremy Hellickson

Those six players seem to almost be locks in the bullpen at this point. There is a good chance that they want to keep seven relievers which opens up a very interesting battle for spring training. The two other players currently listed as relievers on the official Rays depth chart are Andy Sonnanstine and Dale Thayer. Andy has been around the club for a while but mostly as a starter. However with Wade Davis coming up his best chance of playing in the majors for the Rays will come in the bullpen where he could be a decent long reliever. Dale Thayer is 29 years old but just made his major league debut for the Rays this past season where he played in 11 games. I honestly don’t know what to think of his situation right now, but I’m sure we’ll get some answers over the next few weeks.

Hellickson is the Rays top pitching prospect at this point. The Rays have really been spoiled at that position lately with first Price, then Davis and Hellickson. He is mentioned from time to time as a potential candidate for the final bullpen spot but I have a feeling it is mostly from people who just want to see him play and knows that a spot in the starting rotation might not open up in the near future. But he is a starting pitcher and hopefully I hope they keep him in the minors a while longer and get him that experience instead of having him in a bullpen.

There are a few more arms in camp too but none that I really know a whole lot about so I’ll take a wait and see approach and see if anybody stands out during spring training. My personal favorite to win the spot is Sonnanstine but we’ll see what happens. Thankfully we don’t have to wait a lot longer anymore.