After losing Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler, Randy Choate, Joaquin Benoit, and relief ace Rafael Soriano to free agency this winter, Rays manager Joe Maddon has a lot of work in store for the 2011 season. True, most teams do build their bullpens on the fly, as the relief pitcher role has the most inconsistent success rate and highest turnover rate of any position in the game. However, the bullpen-on-the-fly approach works much better when the team has one or two very dependable guys to turn to when stuff hit’s the fan.
Without Soriano to turn to in the ninth, Benoit in the eighth, or Cormier, Wheeler, or Balfour to turn to in tight late-game situations, Tampa will be hurting. This offseason leaves the team not just without an established closer, but for the most part without an established bullpen whatsoever. Recent addition Kyle Farnsworth is the most experienced veteran in Maddon’s bullpen and at this point it looks like he could even be the closer. Reports have maintained that the Rays are “still shopping” this offseason and are planning to spend the money saved by trading Matt Garza to improve other areas of the team, but at this point there aren’t a whole lot of viable chips left on the market and finding a DH became a higher priority for the club.
Jon Rauch was rumored to be a target for Tampa and would have made a much more viable closer candidate than Farnsworth, but Rauch recently decided to forego the Rays and sign with division rival Toronto. Manny Delcarmen is another name rumored to be on Tampa’s radar.
Jake McGee and Andy Sonnanstine should have the next biggest roles after Farnsworth, with Mike Ekstrom, Cory Wade, Joel Peralta, Adam Russell, Brandon Gomes, and Cesar Ramos likely all being given chances to crack the ‘pen out of Spring Training.
While relief pitching is a very volatile position at which new stars and studs emerge from each year, there is no immediate fantasy value in the Rays bullpen. It is a common stratagem for managers lacking established relief pitching to throw a bunch of retreaded veterans from the bargain market and unproven youngsters into the mix in Spring Training and over the course of the season to see what works and what doesn't. The Rays are going with this plan after losing their relief corps to free agency, but only time can tell us which of these "new meat" will make it and whom will not.
Youngster Brandon Gomes, acquired from the Jason Bartlett-to-San-Diego trade, is perhaps the most intriguing hurler of the bunch. Although he has been overlooked by most scouts, Gomes posted a ridiculous 12.5 K/9 last season and was the only pitcher in the Minor Leagues to record 100 strikeouts, accomplishing the feat in just 72 innings. Gomes displayed very solid control by issuing just 28 walks, while his ability to pound the lower half of the strike zone makes it hard for hitters to take him deep. Gomes throws a fastball that tops at 95 MPH, a heavy splitter in the low 80's, and a sweeping slider. On the downside, though, Gomes is 26 and has yet to see AAA action, while the drastic platoon split in his strikeout numbers (14.36 K/9 vs. RHB/ 9.00 K/9 vs. LHB) suggest that he may struggle against lefties in a more advanced setting.
Still, given the emptiness left by the departure of literally every "big-time" Tampa reliever, if Gomes can impress, he will land a job pitching in the later innings for the Rays, so keep an eye on this guy.
For fantasy baseball owners who play in keeper formats who owned Rafael Soriano, well, you're tough out of luck. Because of what Soriano demonstrated he can do in a full, healthy season in 2010 with the Rays, he became that set-up guy who is too valuable to get rid of unless you can tack him on to make a trade go through or until he hurts himself or underperforms. Despite the impeccable durability and dominance we've seen from legendary Yankees closer Mariano Rivera through the years, you can never be certain that any pitcher will hold up, including Rivera.
Last year, Soriano pitched to a 3-2 record, 1.73 ERA, and a 57-14 K-BB ratio in 62 innings, slamming the door for 45 saves. He's going to be slid into an eighth inning role for the Yankees, but if Rivera goes down, there's no question that Soriano will be the guy to replace him. Additionally, if you own Rivera in your fantasy baseball keeper league or plan to draft him in your league, Soriano becomes a must-have insurance option, much like top-tier running backs come "handcuffed" with their back-ups in fantasy football, just in case.