Tampa Bay and the ever revolving closer door

From Tyler Walker and the once-promising career of Seth McClung to the contracts and trades made for injured relievers below market value, the Rays have relied on a different closer in all five completed seasons since Andrew Friedman took over baseball operations prior to the 2006 season. It’s a risky formula and one that has produced some flops, but with some patience it has become accepted that the Rays are one of the better bullpen architects in baseball.

Last season the Rays bullpen ranked fourth among all MLB clubs in ERA (3.33) and came in sixth in terms of FIP (3.76). They also ranked eighth in WAR according to the good people at Fangraphs and second regarding both opponent batting average, WHIP and WPA (win probability added). Good times all around.

However, thanks to the eradication of the reserve clause in 1975, Friedman and the Rays are forced to, once again, use their brains and address the ‘pen. Among last season’s class, six of their relievers qualified for free agency at a fairly high point of value. Some early contracts caught the Rays by surprise; it was speculated during the 2010 season that Joaquin Benoit could assume the mantle of closer if the price was right.

The departure of Rafael Soriano, Benoit, Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate, and Chad Qualls not only created a healthy market for middle relievers but also forced the budget-conscious team to once again re-strategize bullpen configuration while properly assessing player value.

2006 and the quest for sustainable winning

After the 2005 season, the Devil Rays of Tampa, among the announced (forced) retirements of Lou Pinella and Chuck LaMar, decided it was time to roll out their latest wunderkind. Andrew Friedman was only 28 years old when he was appointed as head of baseball operations. One of his first orders of business was to find takers for former first round pick Dewon Brazelton and reliable reliever Danys Baez. The trade for Brazelton was a last-minute dump for anything salvageable (which became Sean Burroughs and his final 24 plate appearances) but the Baez trade was designed to be special. Just that offseason, free agent relieversB.J. Ryan, Kyle Farnsworth and Billy Wagner were accepting expensive multi-year deals and it was assessed that Baez was an unnecessary luxury and was flipped to the Dodgers for prospects Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany.

The loss of Baez would surely be felt but after going 67-95 in the win-loss column in ’05, it was obvious the sting wouldn’t be too bad. During the 2006 season, Friedman would orchestrate trades for Tyler Walker, Dioner Navarro, Ben Zobrist, J.P. Howell, Dale Thayer and Evan Meek. Unfortunately, Meek would be left unprotected in the 2007 Rule 5 draft but a few interesting bullpen pieces were claimed.

2006 Bullpen Chart

player K/9 BB/9 SwStr% FIP
Tyler Walker 7.2 3.2 10.40% 2.6
Brian Meadows 4.5 1.9 5.70% 5.4
Ruddy Lugo 5.1 3.9 8% 4.11
Seth McClung 8.5 8.5 9% 5.25
Travis Harper 6.9 2.8 7.40% 4.55
Dan Miceli 5.1 5.6 9.60% 5.62
Shawn Camp 6.4 2.3 6.80% 4.33
Chad Harville 6.6 4.8 11.20% 4.88
Chad Orvella 6.3 7.4 8% 7.79
Jon Switzer 4.8 5.1 7.50% 5.79
Edwin Jackson 6.1 5.8 8.60% 4.27
Juan Salas 7.2 2.7 7% 3.75

Nothing was easy for this group.

Overall they ranked third from the bottom among all AL teams in terms of bullpen ERA (4.98) and walks per nine innings (4.05) and were the second-worst AL bullpen in terms of strikeouts per nine (5.89). Injuries were a problem, as Tyler Walker turned out to be quite serviceable but fell to elbow trouble a few months after he was acquired from the San Francisco Giants. He would go on to receive Tommy John surgery and thus end his career in Tampa and as a closer.

The other interesting piece was J.P. Howell; however, when he was swapped for 2005’s fastest player in baseball, Joey Gathwright, Howell was seen as a middling triple-A pitcher with diminishing velocity. Tampa still saw him as a starter but that was quickly put to rest the following season.

2007 and the rapid fall of Seth McClung

After the injury to Tyler Walker, efforts were made to convert McClung as the team’s closer. In his 15 starts in 2006, McClung opponents hit .304/.391/.472 while allowing an unacceptable K/BB ratio of 0.81. Scouts always loved McClung’s high 90s fastball but his lack of command would be his downfall as he didn’t post much better K/BB wise as a reliever with only a 1.00 to show for it.

With reports that McClung could open the 2007 season in triple-A, Tampa would sign three bullpen free agents over the offseason: Scott Dohmann, a 29 year old high strikeout with command issues type. Gary Glover, a 30 year old middle reliever with promising peripherals who spent the entire 2006 season with the Yomiuri Giants and, finally, Al Reyes – a 36 year old reliever coming off a lost season due to Tommy John surgery.

Not much would be expected.

Homestretch: The 1967 AL Pennant Race, Part 3
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2007 Bullpen Chart

Player K/9 BB/9 SwStr% FIP
Al Reyes 10.4 3.1 10.50% 4.85
Gary Glover 5.9 3.1 8.30% 5.02
Casey Fossum 8.4 4 8.40% 4.82
Brian Stokes 5.1 3.6 8.90% 5.76
Shawn Camp 8.1 4.1 8.70% 5.29
Juan Salas 6.4 4.2 9.20% 6.13
Scott Dohmann 7.2 5 8.30% 4.49
Dan Wheeler 9.4 3.6 8.90% 4.04
Jae Kuk Ryu 5.4 4.2 9.00% 5.08
Grant Balfour 11.1 6.6 12.40% 3.56
Jon Switzer 6.2 3.3 7.30% 4.34
Jay Witasick 4.4 9.9 6.50% 6.36
Jason Hammel 9.2 6.6 9.70% 4.88

According to bullpen ERA, their 2007 relief corp. ranks as one of the worst in the modern era. Both Ruddy Lugo and Chad Orvella carried some promise but both failed as dependable options. Casey Fossum’s role in long relief turned into a disaster, yet two mid-season trades would go on to pay dividends for the organization.

On July 28, 2007m Friedman would ship off Ty Wigginton to the offense-starved Astros for Dan Wheeler, a well regarded set-up man. Also, that same day the team would finally find a buyer for McClung’s services as he was swapped for a serviceable yet often injured reliever in Grant Balfour.

2008 – 2010: Domination followed by regression, repeat, etc.

Besides taking on a slight name change and new color scheme, a feeling was in the air that some of their moves may finally begin to take shape… it’s just that no one knew quite when. Shortly after the much publicized trade of a Rookie of the Year candidate, Delmon Young, to the Twins for Jason Bartlett, Matt Garza, and Eduardo Meloan, both Friedman and Matthew Silverman (the Rays Team President) spoke to Jonah Keri in an ESPN article where they broke down their basic philosophy. Obviously a great predecessor to Keri’s upcoming book on the Rays, both were very open about their feelings toward player value, and you could sense some reserved optimism for the upcoming season from both sides.

Following their previous plan of locating a free agent closer at a low value point, the Rays made an offer to Troy Percival following a few years of injury and forced retirement. Looking at the free agent class after the 2007 season, other than Francisco Cordero, the reliever class was a bit thin—so landing Percival after 40 quality innings in St. Louis did signify some confidence in the Rays organization.

2008 Bullpen Chart

player K/9 BB/9 SwStr% FIP
Troy Percival 7.5 5.3 8.50% 5.87
Dan Wheeler 7.2 3 9.70% 4.49
Grant Balfour 12.7 3.7 11.60% 2.22
J.P. Howell 9.3 3.9 10.10% 3.39
Jason Hammel 5.2 4.1 8.10% 5.46
Trever Miller 9.1 4.2 9.90% 3.36
Gary Glover 5.8 4.8 6.80% 4.66
Al Reyes 7.5 4 12% 4.06
Chad Bradford 1.9 3.8 4.70% 4.82
Scott Dohmann 7.4 4.3 8.90% 4.7
David Price 9.4 1.04 14.20% 3.25
Jeff Niemann 10.8 4.1 9.90% 2.08

Besides getting a little help from a rather low BABIP (.257) and a solid defense (ranked 2nd in terms of UZR/150), the Rays bullpen found themselves ranked fifth in ERA (3.55), fourth in strikeout ratio (8.03) and first in WPA (9.30).

Looking at the above chart, it became obvious that previous acquisitions— J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler—were becoming key members of their bullpen and could serve as a solid corps as other key parts are added. However, the elusive “key” would be to find another closer, since Percival began to fade late in the season due to back pain, while late season call-ups, David Price and Jeff Niemann, were expected to be a part of the 2009 rotation.

2009 Bullpen Chart

player K/9 BB/9 SwStr% FIP
J.P. Howell 10.7 4.5 12% 3.71
Grant Balfour 9.2 4.4 9.30% 3.77
Lance Cormier 4.2 2.9 6.70% 4.18
Dan Wheeler 7 1.4 7.70% 4.48
Randy Choate 6.9 2.7 7.60% 3.9
Brian Shouse 5.5 2.3 5% 5.17
Joe Nelson 8 6.1 8.20% 5.65
Russ Springer 6.5 1.8 14.20% 5.84
Troy Percival 5.6 3.9 8.20% 6.89
Dale Thayer 5.3 0.6 5.20% 5.01
Jeff Bennett 2.8 3.9 5.10% 7.36
Chad Bradford 5.2 1.7 4.90% 3.77

In February of 2009, the Rays signed Jason Isringhausen after an injury-plagued season that resulted in surgery to fix a tear in his elbow. Also, on the injury front, Troy Percival was coming off back surgery and Chad Bradford was required to undergo arthroscopic surgery to his right elbow.

To shore up opposing lefties after Trever Miller’s departure, the Rays signed 40 year old Brian Shouse (Bradford’s submariner counterpart) and Randy Choate, a 33-year-old coming off a lost season with the Brewers due to a broken hand. Shouse fell victim to an obscenely high home run/fly ball rate of 33 percent but Choate worked his groundball inducer to help notch five saves while showing good command.

Needless to say, Isringhausen never factored in as much of an option and only appeared in eight innings. The majority of the saves fell to the responsibility of J.P. Howell but his excessive workload from his 2008 season (89.1 innings in 2008 along with 66 in ’09) could have factored into his recent injury.

Coming into the 2009 season many were optimistic about the Rays bullpen since many of them were still under contract but regression did rear its ugly head in the form of an increased home run/fly ball rate of 11.2 percent (previous season’s level was at nine percent) and a BABIP closer to normal levels of .276 (although still low thanks to a 3rd ranked defense that posted a 7.9 UZR/150).

2010 Bullpen Chart

player K/9 BB/9 SwStr% FIP
Rafael Soriano 8.2 2 11.70% 2.81
Joaquin Benoit 11.2 1.6 14.80% 2.43
Grant Balfour 9.1 2.8 8.90% 2.68
Dan Wheeler 8.6 2.9 10.40% 4.11
Randy Choate 8.1 3.4 11.00% 3.5
Lance Cormier 4.4 4.9 7.30% 5.22
Andy Sonnanstine 6.1 2.4 9.30% 4.87
Chad Qualls 6.4 2.6 9.40% 3.89
Mike Ekstrom 5.5 4.9 7.60% 3.87
Jeremy Hellickson 7.2 3.6 14.00% 6.88

Entering the 2010 season, it was obvious that Friedman would be focusing a large portion of his resources on solidifying their bullpen. When the Braves found themselves in a financial jam after learning that Rafael Soriano accepted their arbitration offer of seven million dollars, the team became desperate to move their often injured reliever to make room for the recent signing of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito. The Rays seeing an opportunity, offered Jessie Chavez—a rubber armed low leverage reliever first acquired from Pittsburgh a month earlier. The Rays knew that adding Soriano would put them in a pinch but the trade price was too low to ignore.

A few months later, the Rays would sign Joaquin Benoit to a minor league contract. Benoit was recovering from rotator cuff surgery but the Rays gambled and turned up a winning lottery ticket.

2011: Starting all over again

Everyone knew that Rafael Soriano was long gone but the front office did hold out some hope that either Benoit and/or Balfour could be retained. Of course, the season didn’t even end when Rays owner, Stuart Sternberg, declared that payroll was going to be drastically cut.

When the Tigers announced that they signed Benoit to a three-year deal worth close to 19 million dollars, I’m sure this was a clear announcement that this current market would require some creativity.

As it stands, the Rays seem intent on opening camp with Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and Adam Russell sharing much of the high leverage work until J.P. Howell recovers from shoulder surgery. Recent reports do sound optimistic regarding Howell, but shoulder injuries are tricky and not until someone throws from the mound do we ever know where one stands.

The acquisitions of Farnsworth and Peralta were pure buy-low options. Although the Nationals decision to non-tender Peralta after showing excellent command and a healthy strike out rate is shocking, especially with Tampa Bay moving in for a relatively cheap price. Peralta does come with some red-flags: his BABIP was an unsustainably low .200 and his high fly ball rate doesn’t quite mesh with his lower than average home run to fly ball ratio of 7.1 percent. The Rays do have the outfield defense to handle fly ball launchers but it will be interesting to see what numbers Peralta posts by midseason.

The decision to name Reid Brignac as the starting shortstop in 2011 did make Jason Bartlett expendable, which turned him into two very interesting relievers in Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos. Russell looks like the more promising arm with high 90’s stuff but Ramos looks like he could develop into a well-polished lefty based on previous command levels.

Among others that look very interesting is Corey Wade. In 2008 Wade broke out with the Dodgers and posted strong numbers in terms of command in 71 plus innings. Since that time he has fallen victim to a shoulder injury which caused him to undergo surgery last offseason. Wade signed with Tampa this offseason to a minor league contract…classic Friedman penny-stock gamble.

Of course another name that will get heavy mentioning is Jake McGee. Lots has been made about McGee healthy fastball/slider combo and his role in the ‘pen seems certain in 2011.

Finally, the rest of the bullpen rounds out with Chris Archer, a 22 year old live arm who will get a long look this spring; Archer was one of the many players to be brought over in the recent Matt Garza trade. His minor league numbers look promising on the strikeout side, but his lack of command will probably have him returning to the high minors for more seasoning.

Obviously this bullpen is nowhere near done and with Andrew Friedman expressing a strong desire to obtain a lower priced high-leverage closer, it’ll be interesting to see if the Rays turn over another lottery ticket.

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LOL’ed at your characterization of JP Howell as a “meddling triple-A pitcher”…middling, perhaps?  But then, I guess he could have been meddling in triple-A.

Vince Caramela
Vince Caramela

Meddling.. middling, it’s all the same when you’re writing this at 3 a.m.

You know what? I’m staying with meddling because I’m sure Howell was frustrated with all his “haters” because of his “middling” triple-A fastball. Come on, anyone would want to lash out and pry on others in that situation.


Thanks for the good work on this timely article, Vince.

Ben Ice
Ben Ice

Nice work. Love the historical analysis. It’s amazing how Friedman and his team consistently uncover value. If the economy turns around in the bay area the Rays attendance will skyrocket.