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Who’s Closing In Tampa?

The Rays have had the misfortune of seeing almost their entire bullpen leave via free agency this offseason, including All-World closer Rafael Soriano and dynamite setup man Joaquin Benoit. Andrew Friedman has had to rebuild his relief corps on the fly this winter, and it’s a process that’s still ongoing. He’s added a host of relievers in trades and a few through free agency, but at the moment there doesn’t appear to be a clear cut favorite for that almighty ninth inning role.

There’s essentially just four candidates for the job at the moment, though nothing is more fungible in fantasy baseball than closers. Let’s take a quick look at the four and assess where they stand…

J.P. Howell

Howell saved 17 games for the 2009 Rays but missed all of 2010 after having surgery to repair a tore labrum in his rotator cuff. Tampa re-signed him to a one-year deal worth $1.1M earlier this offseason, which seems like an act of good faith more than anything. By his own admission, Howell isn’t expected to return until mid-May at the earliest, so we can cross him off our closer candidates list.

Kyle Farnsworth

Signed to a one-year deal worth no less than $3.25M just yesterday, the one they call Krazy Kyle brings some closing experience if nothing else. It has been a while though (last year with more than one save was 2006), so maybe we should neglect his 27 career saves. Farnsworth remade himself as a Royal the last two seasons, mixing a cutter into his repertoire in addition to all those straight four-seam fastballs. His ground ball rate has climbed up over 41% after sitting in the mid-to-low-30’s for the better part of a decade, and as a result his homerun finally fell on the right side of 1.0 HR/9. Farnsworth is still going to give you close to a strikeout per inning, and an improved defense could help keep that ERA and WHIP down.

Joel Peralta

Dave Cameron compared Peralta to Soriano a few weeks ago, which I’m sure is what prompted Tampa to pick him up on the cheap (one-year, $900,000). Although he was excellent for the Nats in 2010, Peralta’s track record of success at the big league level is pretty small, small enough to keep him out of the ninth inning for the time being.

Adam Russell

Acquired in the Jason Bartlett trade, Russell throws extremely hard and misses a ton of bats (9.1% swings and misses in his relatively short career), two traits that endear him to late inning relief. Opponents have just a .058 ISO against him in his career, righties even less (.034). He’s still short on experience and will probably have to cut his teeth in middle relief before being given the keys to high leverage situations.

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Matt Bush (yes, that Matt Bush) and Jake McGee are also worth mentioning, but they’re just kids at this point. They’d have to pitch exceptionally well in the early going to see save opportunities at some point in 2011. There’s always a chance that Grant Balfour returns, since it’s apparent that no team is willing to surrender a high draft pick to sign him, and if he does I’m sure he’d move right to the front of the closer line. Until that happens, I firmly believe that Farnsworth is the frontrunner for save opportunities in Tampa. That will probably make Yankees and Cubs fans snicker, but if he keeps the walks down and continues to limit homers, he’ll be just fine.

Go here to submit your fan projections for these guys: Howell, Farnsworth, Peralta, and Russell.