What's Up With That Rays' Bullpen?

A graphical representation of the Rays bullpen this season.

The Rays have called on 7 Durham Bulls to join their bullpen -- in July alone. What is the Rays' front-office thinking?

Joel Peralta, Kyle Farnsworth.

That is the list of relievers who have been on the Rays roster from opening day until now. Every other relief pitcher on the team has either been demoted, put on the DL, or wasn’t on the 25 man roster when the season started. Just for the record that would be Jake McGee, Brandon Gomes, Rob Delaney, J.P. Howell, Jay Buente, Andy Sonnanstine, Juan Cruz, Alexander Torres, Adam Russell, Dane De La Rosa, and Cesar Ramos. The latest to ride the bullpen merry-go-round is Mike Eckstrom, yet another former Padre reliever, who sports a career 5.48 ERA in the Major Leagues.

What the heck is going on with all of these bullpen moves? They’ve racked up frequent flier miles for 7 ex-Durham Bulls in July alone. The Rays are (in)famous for getting creative with their roster moves. (Just consider their use of the DL to add players to their playoff roster who weren’t on the 40 man roster.) But if there’s one thing we ought to have learned about this front office it is this: there is always a method to their madness.

Part of the reason for all of the traveling has to do with the return of Wade Davis and the success of rookie Alex Cobb. Since Davis’ return the Rays have opted to run a 6-man rotation. While limiting the innings on the arms of the starters and giving Cobb a chance to show the team what he’s got, it also removes a roster spot for a reliever.

Because the team has one fewer relief pitcher on the roster, the front office has basically been using Durham as a bullpen-extender. If a player is on the team’s 40 man roster, he can be moved up or down as many times as the Rays want each season. There is a caveat, however. The player cannot be recalled for 10 days after he’s been optioned (unless a current major leaguer hits the DL, then the 10 day rule no longer applies for that roster spot.) I would not be even the least bit surprised to see J.P Howell hit the 15-day DL in the very near future to give his arm a rest, and give another Durham Bull a trip to Tampa Bay.

This creative bullpen accounting, to me, is a clear sign that the Rays feel that they have 2-4 good relievers, and a whole bunch of league-average ones which are completely interchangeable in low-leverage situations. A low-leverage situation is when James Shields gives up 10 runs in 4 innings to the Athletics and you need Rob Delaney to soak up the blood.

Another completely speculative hypothesis is that the Rays are secretly trying to move one of their major-league starters, and are using the 6-man rotation as an audition. The Rays have a glutton of pitching coming through the minor leagues (all hail Matt Moore), and they will need places to put them in the coming years.  My guess is that we’ll see an end to this six-man rotation nonsense when a) one of the current starters gets traded or b) when the trade deadline has passed (although trades are still very possible after the trade deadline, like when the Rays traded Scott Kazmir on August 29th, 2009.)

Rays fans shouldn’t focus too much on the bullpen craziness, however. These are the last 1-2 guys in the ‘pen we’re talking about, and they don’t affect the outcome nearly as much as an offense which has the 11th worst On Base Percentage in the American League. 

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