St. Pete Relief

In 2008, the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen posted a 3.55 ERA and a 4.18 FIP, quite an accomplishment considering the 2007 version had a collective 6.16 ERA and a 5.31 FIP. The turnaround was lead by breakout seasons from Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell along with overstated performances from veterans Dan Wheeler, Troy Percival, and Trever Miller. We’ve seen the ugly and the good with the Rays pen over the last two years, but what will 2009 hold?

As personnel goes, the Rays are likely to move Chad Bradford’s salary prior to the season’s genesis. Bradford was acquired last August and runs a pretty coin for a team on a budget. All told the Rays would spend nearly 10 million if they keep Bradford, Percival, and Wheeler, that’s roughly a sixth of the team’s total payroll spent on three relievers. Often-injured Percival will likely be the “closer” while Wheeler, Howell, and Balfour act as set-up men. Joe Nelson is the only addition that most people are going to recognize, but the Rays have done a decent job of stockpiling low-risk, medium reward relief types, including Rule 5 draftee Derek Rodriguez, Randy Choate, and most recently Lance Cormier.

The pitcher most susceptive to regression appears to be Wheeler. A .202 BABIP (career BABIP is .298) will undoubtedly rise, compounding Wheeler’s homerun tendencies. Even worse, Wheeler saw his strikeout rates and velocity plunge while his walk rates took a minor spike. Wheeler’s CHONE projected 3.98 FIP seems overly optimistic at this point. Howell also seemed to have some BABIP luck and his line drive rate seems unsustainably low.

The most unpredictable pitcher on staff could be Balfour. Throughout his career, Balfour highlighted impressive strikeout rates, but diminished them with outrageous walk totals. Balfour had spent most of 2007 in the minors and was designated for assignment in spring training last season. Naturally, he went unclaimed, and would report to Triple-A Durham. After a Percival injury, Balfour would be called upon and excel in a “relief ace” role. CHONE calls for a 3.22 FIP, and that seems like a decent midpoint.

Nelson and Cormier are unlikely to replicate their 2008 seasons either. Of the improvements, Cormier’s seems more plausible as a sincere progression. Heavy implementation of a curveball seemed to coincide with his success. Meanwhile Nelson saw an increase in groundballs while seemingly not changing anything. Perhaps the difference is the contextual usage of his “Vulcan change-up” rather than the total usage.

Some other names that could pop up in the Rays pen next year include Jason Childers, Jorge DePaula, Dewon Day (assuming he clears waivers), Jeff Niemann, Mitch Talbot, Dale Thayer, Juan Salas, and James Houser. If that seems like an excessive amount of reserve relievers, well, that’s because it is. The Rays have stacked the top of their system with largely interchangeable relievers that share common traits, like producing groundballs and avoiding walks. Basically, they have a ton of seemingly average relief arms at their exposure if disaster strikes.

It’s fair to say the Rays pen won’t feature a top tier relief corps, but there’s no reason to believe they won’t be in the middle of the pack again in 2009.

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