The architect of one of the biggest defensive turnarounds in modern baseball history, Andrew Friedman was given another tough task this offseason: build an entire major league bullpen with limited financial flexibility. In an offseason where relievers banked over $200 million, the Rays signed three relief pitchers (Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta, J.P. Howell) to major league deals totaling around $6 million. Given the volatile nature of relief pitchers and bullpens, it is a sound strategy for a small revenue team like the Rays to put their dollars into different areas of the team. However, not only is Tampa Bay budget-conscious, but also stingy when it comes to guaranteed years.
A large side note of 2008 defensive makeover was the improved bullpen. Friedman used trades to acquire spare parts like J.P. Howell and Grant Balfour and signed some veterans to fill out the staff including closer Troy Percival. Even at the time of signing handing a two-year, $8-million contract to a former retiree was a bit excessive; however, at that point the Tampa Bay franchise was seen as a perennial cellar-dweller and had to potentially overpay in both dollars and time to land a free agent target.
Friedman’s broad stroke has painted many masterpieces in a short time. Troy Percival was not one of them. The first month or so went fantastic until Percival’s age and injury history caught up with him. By the time the Rays went on their magical World Series run, the surly closer was back home in California. With a second year guaranteed, Percival returned to the team the following season, tossed 11.1 innings and sailed off into the sunset while still collecting checks.
Whether it was a direct causation of the failed signing or coincidence, the Rays have been very cautious navigating the relief market waters since Percival. They have not completely sworn off commitment; however it is clear they rather date than marry. After the Percival deal, the Rays have signed seven major league relievers to contracts. Each has been a one-year pact. The two relievers he acquired via trade last season Rafael Soriano and Chad Qualls were both free agents at seasons end. The Rays have even gone year-to-year* with arbitration eligible candidates like Grant Balfour.
*The one reliever who received an extension from Friedman was Dan Wheeler and that too was prior to the start of the 2008 season.
Instead of guaranteeing years and millions to established relievers, Friedman spent the winter acquiring unproven, cheap, and controllable bullpen arms via trade and a few minor league free agents. Names like Adam Russell, Brandon Gomes, Cesar Ramos, Cory Wade, Dirk Hayhurst, and Rob Delaney along with several in-house bullpen candidates like Jake McGee, Matt Bush and groundball sleeper Dane De La Rosa, give the Rays plenty of cheap, viable options for not only the 2011 team, but bullpens of the future.
Of course, this will not allow the Rays to completely ignore the free agent market in the future. Meanwhile, having cheap and controllable arms allows the team to reallocate funds elsewhere. Not all the names mentioned above will turn into success stories. On the other hand, the cost in terms of dollars and risk is minimal given the potential for varying degrees of reward. Like the rotation that has become the team’s lifeblood, the Rays’ bullpen may become a self-replenishing entity with little need for outside help.
And it’s all Troy Percival’s fault…or to his credit.