There have been many topics of conversation regarding the Rays’ roster this winter. Yes, the team does need to figure out the first base and designated hitter positions, and a starting pitcher may get moved before the season. However, the biggest point of contention has centered on the construction of the bullpen.
Having a good bullpen is obviously an important part of having a winning team. The Rays had exactly that in 2008 and 2010 when they won the American League East. The 2009 season saw a slight decline in the bullpen's overall production (in no way was it bad), and while it wasn't the only factor in the team failing to win 90 games, it didn't help. Grant Balfour and J.P. Howell emerged in 2008, stepping in and becoming two of the best relievers in all of baseball - their ERA+s for the season were 287 and 199 respectively. Two seasons later Joaquin Benoit and Rafael Soriano assumed those duties, becoming the best 1-2 punch in baseball while posting ERA+s of 295 and 228. With the loss of Benoit and Soriano, along with a few other key bullpen arms, it appears the pen will take another downturn in 2011.
A downturn from last season doesn't automatically mean the bullpen will be bad. They have some good, interesting pieces in place; Jake McGee, Adam Russell, Joel Peralta, etc. They just have the public disadvantage of not having sustained success in the majors. There are still quality arms out there for the Rays to snatch up, but even if you aren't enthused by the collection of relievers Andrew Friedman is putting together, it could always be worse. Take a look at the pitchers on the 2007 team who got 40+ innings of work in relief.
That's...that's not good. Granted, the organization knew the team had no chance of contending so spending money on constructing a decent bullpen wouldn't have been a smart investment. But, man, those games were hard to watch. Al Reyes seemed to be quasi serviceable that season, but ended up having a WAR of 0.0. He also got into a fight on his birthday after tripping over a potted plant, so there's that. Shawn Camp got a bad rap. Playing in front of a terrible defensive infield certainly didn't help any of the pitchers listed, but the groundballing camp was affected most. He had a GB% of 57.1 but a BABiP of .422 that season. It's a wonder he didn't commit a murder with Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson as your double play combo. As for Glover, Fossum, and Stokes...not much good can be said for them.
Each of us has some doubt about how well the pen that Friedman comprises will perform. Personally I think it will turn out just fine - I'm generally an optimist. If you find yourself doubting the abilities of the bullpen this season, just think back to a few years ago. It can't be that bad again.