Following a couple of off-season moves from the Tampa Bay Rays VP of Baseball Operations, Andrew Friedman, the Rays bullpen has taken a quite a different appearance -- in a good way.
Much was said about the 2011 bullpen -- assembled by Andrew Friedman almost entirely from scratch after 90% of the Rays' relievers left via free agency. Let us take a gander at how that 2011 bullpen looked near the end of the season:
A couple of notes: First of all, we can notice the Rays do not employ the traditional middle-to-setup-to-closer bullpen pattern. No, not at all. In fact, it is a disservice to Kyle Farnsworth to call him just a closer -- he is in fact much more. He is the Rays' high leverage man -- their highest leverage man.
Farnsworth gets a lot of the saves, but Joe Maddon does not hesitate to use him whenever the game may be on the line -- 9th inning or nay. Next in the arsenal is Joel Peralta, who played fireman. A fireman is like a setup guy, except he comes in whenever Farnsworth needs to be saved for a later inning.
So, if the bases are loaded with nobody out in the 6th, Peralta gets the call. Together, Peralta and Farnsworth sucked up all the spilled juice from the season, and by using his absolute best two relievers far and away the most, Rays manager Joe Maddon was able make a mediocre bullpen do amazing things.
Consider: The Rays had a middle of the pack bullpen ERA of 3.73, but their bullpen FIP (which more accurately tells us how well they pitched) was one of the league's worst at 4.14. On top of that, the Rays 'pen had only 15 losses all season -- second least in the MLB to the Arizona Diamondback (14) and five better than the next closest AL bullpen, the New York Yankees (20).
Granted, that's not a complete assessment of bullpen usage, but it is a hint at one of Joe Maddon's best skills. That is: He puts pitchers in positions to excel and uses his best relievers in the toughest moments.
Behind those top two relievers, the Rays did not have the best of bullpens. Adam Russell struggled mightily in every role given him; Andy Sonnanstine could not strike anyone out, and J.P. Howell looked like the shell of the relief ace he was before his year-long injury.
So the Rays astutely traded for some relief help in the forms of acquiring RHP Josh Lueke for John Jaso and stealing RHP Burke Badenhop for minor league catcher Jake Jefferies. No disrespect intended towards Mr. Jefferies, but a pitcher of Badenhop's talent is no where near worth a low minor league catcher who has hit worse than a ham sandwich.
Anyway, the addition of these two highly intriguing pieces -- plus the development of Jake McGee and Brandon Gomes -- can dramatically reshape this bullpen.
Let's look at my prediction for how the Rays bullpen will shake out in 2012:
"Why! Why, there's no long man! And what's this 'Goundball' nonsense!?" asks Mr. Manager, circa 1980.
Well, this is the bullpen I imagine Maddon longs for. Farns and Peralta split the high leverage, Gomes focuses on right-handed batters, Badenhop -- side-arm groundball machine -- comes in for double plays (but avoids powerful lefties), Howell dominates lefties (and then hopefully returns to form and becomes a second fireman), and then Luke and McGee -- the two closers in training -- share the lower-leverage outings.
The FIPs listed above are my gustory guesses. Gustory? Oh, it's 25% gut, 75% history. I look at the player's history and then tweak it just a little based on my knowledge of the player's situation and whatever other rumblies in my tumbly that might influence me.
So: Why no long man? I tell you why: Jake McGee, Josh Lueke, Burke Badenhop, and Brandon Gomes can all pitch up to three innings -- and have done so recently. Even J.P. Howell is a former starter, though his effectiveness decreases rapidly each additional time through the lineup.
Put this bullpen together -- plus the likes of Cesar Ramos, Dane De La Rosa, and Matt Bush, relievers all on the cusp of the 'pen -- and the 2012 Rays bullpen is starting to look the single greatest Rays bullpen in history. And, if they stay healthy and progress like they should, this young 'pen could be the best in the majors in 2012.
And if so: Then how good is Andrew Friedman? He had no bullpen this time in 2010, but may have the league's best by October of 2012.
And that .
Is pretty awesome.