The Rays very well may be in possession of the best bullpen in the American League, as their collective 3.45 FIP ranks third overall and first in the AL, just ahead of the White Sox’ staff. Despite being in mid-July, the Rays have only made one roster move for their pitching staff all season, an early season demotion of Mike Ekstrom and promotion of Joaquin Benoit. Otherwise, the entire unit that opened the season is still intact. But maybe not for too much longer.
Joaquin Benoit has a 1.60 FIP and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 10. A minor league signing in the winter, Benoit has exceeded any reasonable projections. Jonah Keri has called him the “embodiment of the Extra 2%,” which just so happens to be the name of his forthcoming book on the Rays. Benoit barely edges Grant Balfour (2.32) and Rafael Soriano (2.88)). LOOGY Randy Choate and ROOGY Dan Wheeler have been similarly good. In fact, only one pitcher in the Rays’ pen has an xFIP over 4.4, that being Lance Cormier, who has seemingly lost his once impeccable control.
So why might this group not be around for much longer? Because each and every one of them can reach the free agency market at season’s end with the exception of Andy Sonnanstine. Soriano and Benoit signed one year deals; Balfour and Choate will qualify for free agency of the non-released variety for the first time in their respective careers; Cormier very well could be a non-tender candidate at this rate; and the Rays hold a club option on Wheeler worth $4 million with a buyout worth $1 million.
With the Rays shedding something like $40 million in payroll, ostensibly a few will return. Benoit could return to the team willing to give him a chance and potentially close, setting himself up for a bigger payday in the near future. Choate has an ERA over 6 despite pitching well for the most part. Wheeler has become something of a mainstay in the Rays’ pen and is the son-in-law of Rays’ announcer Dewayne Staats. And so on. Soriano seems like the least likely to return, but who knows if the Rays can somehow win the World Series.
In their place the Rays could simply keep everything in-house during a down year. With rotation spots hard to come by the Rays have plenty of arms to throw into the relief corps. Something like this, perhaps:
There’s also Ricky Orta and Matt Bush lying around who could find their way onto the scene. That may not be a surefire recipe for success, but in a year in which there will be a ton of roster turnover, the bullpen seems to be no exception.
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