2011 Rays Preview: The Bullpen

CLEARWATER, FL - MARCH 06: Pitcher Jake McGee #57 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Philadelphia Phillies during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at Bright House Field on March 6, 2011 in Sarasota, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

After the free agent market stole nearly everyone in the bullpen, let's take a look at which pitchers have been brought on and which might make the cut this Spring.

The Rays faced an exodus in this year's bullpen. The only man returning from 2010 will be former starting pitcher - turned "long man" reliever - Andy Sonnanstine. This leaves the Rays without a closer, a set-up man, either one-out men (specialists for left and right handed batters, referred to as ROOGY and LOOGY), or any mid-game relievers. As spring has progressed, the number of men was pared down to a list of about ten choices.

FINAL UPDATE: the opening day bullpen has been finalized and announced, via Joe Maddon's twitter:

Roster set for Opening Day. Bullpen is Peralta, Russell, Farnsworth, Cruz, McGee, Sonnanstine and Ramos.

Maddon has also been quoted saying the Rays will use a "closer by committee", assigning no one man a role in the bullpen. Instead, relief pitchers should be considered by the leverage of the situation at hand. To see these roles assigned, here is the likely use of the Rays 2011 bullpen.

The Opening Day Bullpen:

High Leverage: Jake McGee
High Leverage: Kyle Farnsworth
Med Leverage: Juan Cruz
Med Leverage: Adam Russell
ROOGY: Joel Peralta
LOOGY: Cesar Ramos
Long Man: 
Andy Sonnanstine

Continue reading to see how this list was finalized over the last few weeks, who was in the running and who may be returning from injury in the near future.

2011 Offseason:

Major League Signings (contract status, Lefty or Righty):

Kyle Farnsworth (1yr, $3.25M, R) - Flamethrower and fly ball pitcher who recently added a lights out cutter
J.P. Howell (1yr, $1.1M, L) - Former Rays closer, returning from shoulder surgery in May
Joel Peralta (yr, $900K, R) - Former National, posted a 2.02 ERA with 9.0 K/9 and 1.7 BB/9 in 49 innings last year

Minor League Signings:

Juan Cruz (R) - A 99 mph arm, known for strikeouts. Bouncing back from an injured 2010, could he be the next Benoit?
Cory Wade (R) - A projected mid game reliever, good for 80 innings (Update: sent to minors)

Claims and Trades:

Adam Russell (Bartlett trade, R) - The focus of the trade, generates a lot of empty swings with a whiff rate +11% 
Cesar Ramos (Bartlett trade, L) - A hit magnet, but low on giving up runs
Cesar Cabral (Rule 5 Draft, Red Sox, L) - Has never seen action above single A ball (Update: returned to Boston)
Rob Delaney (Waivers, Twins, R) - Pitched 80 innings in the minors last year to a 4.72 ERA (Update: sent to minors)

Potential Minor Leaguers:

Jake McGee (L) - After converting to the Triple-A bullpen, he posted a 0.52 ERA, struck out 27, and walked 3 in 17.1 innings
Neil Schenk (L) - single-A LOOGY, struck out 86 over 67.2 innings with 67 hits last season

The Bullpen:

In order to project the bullpen, it's important to note Joe Maddon is expecting to use a "closer by committee," not assigning specific roles in the pen. In that case, we should assess the bullpen based on the leverage of a situation instead of considering each man to have one set role.

The men considered a "lock" for the 'pen would be ones given a major league contract. For the moment, let's consider Cruz and Howell to be fully healed, and back to their pre-injury form. In that case, here would be the structure for the projected 'pen:

High Leverage: JP Howell
High Leverage: Kyle Farnsworth
Med Leverage:
Med Leverage:
ROOGY: Joel Peralta
LOOGY:
Long Man: 
Andy Sonnanstine

Projecting the rest of the bullpen is the difficulty. It's hard to imagine a bullpen without Adam Russell, who was the focus of the Jason Bartlett trade. All signs also point to top prospect Jake McGee joining the big leagues this year. If spring training is any rule of thumb, Juan Cruz has had the best performance of any pitcher over the last two months. Slotting these couple of pitchers in, we get the most ideal pen:

High Leverage: JP Howell
High Leverage: Kyle Farnsworth
Med Leverage: Juan Cruz
Med Leverage: Adam Russell
ROOGY: Joel Peralta
LOOGY: Jake McGee
Long Man: 
Andy Sonnanstine

Remember, this is assuming closer by committee. Also worth noting, Howell and McGee could be interchangeable as both are lefty specialists and have closer potential. 

Unfortunately, Howell will not be starting the season. His recovery from injury projects a return in mid May, leaving a position open in the pen. There is also potential the Rays would like to let Cruz rehab a little longer before bringing him to the majors, so there's competition for his slot as well. As things stand now, considering injury, the locks for the Opening Day 'pen are:

High Leverage: Jake McGee
High Leverage: Kyle Farnsworth
Med Leverage: 
Med Leverage: Adam Russell
ROOGY: Joel Peralta
LOOGY: 
Long Man: 
Andy Sonnanstine

Remaining Competitors:

Medium Leverage

Juan Cruz is the club's best option. After him, Rob Delaney and Corey Wade are equal competitors (Update: both were recently sent to minors). In spring training, Delaney has 4 earned runs against him with 10 strikeouts, compared to Wade's 7 ER and 5 Ks. Juan Cruz, on the other hand, has 9 Ks over 8 innings and has allowed merely one run. If none of these options seem like the best choice, former Blue Jay (and best selling author) Dirk Hayhurst is currently at Triple-A Durham. Also known as "The Garfoose," Hayhurst is still recovering from shoulder injury. From scouting reports, it would seem his recovery has progressed well, despite being added to the Triple-A roster before the spring's end. Hayhurst could be the Rays best replacement option mid season. All things considered, and based on the fact Cruz is still at the major league level, it is safe to believe he will be healthy on opening day. Should he find his way to the DL, any of the other three will do. In the mean time, Cruz should make the cut. (Update: with Delaney and Wade cut, Cruz is the last man standing)

LOOGY (AKA, Left-handed One Out GuY)

The lefty specialist does not always have to stay in for one out, but the name is fun. Candidates here are competing for Howell's roster slot until he's recovered. Options include Cesar Ramos (from the Bartlett trade) and 21 year old Cesar Cabral. Cabral is the Rays Rule 5 draft pick, stolen from the Single-A club of the Red Sox. Unless he stays on the Rays' 25 man roster all season, Cabral will have to be given back to Boston, so it's possible that the Rays are trying to work out a deal to keep him around. (Update: Cabral returned to BostonIt would be extremely unusual for a pitcher to skip through the minor league system, unless he's Stephen Strasburg (and if he were, you would have known by now), so he's likely not in line.

Cesar Ramos has major league experience, but nothing stellar. In two seasons, Ramos has seen only 23 innings and given up 37 hits. Neither option stands out over the other. Neil Schenk is still with the club, but like Cabral has never seen above single A ball, so he likely will not make the cut (despite high upside in his strikeout rates, 11.44 K/9). Should no men prove effective once the season starts R J Swindle would be the next best option from Durham, but chances are we can expect one of the Cesar's to get the call until Howell's return. (Update: with Cabral returned to the Red Sox, Cesar Ramos is a near lock for the 'pen)

With all that said, and with Opening Day one week away, here's my best projection of the Opening Day 'pen.

Projected Opening Day Bullpen:

High Leverage: Jake McGee
High Leverage: Kyle Farnsworth
Med Leverage: Juan Cruz
Med Leverage: Adam Russell
ROOGY: Joel Peralta
LOOGY: Cesar Ramos
Long Man: 
Andy Sonnanstine

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