Right now the biggest shortcoming of the Rays 2011 roster (aside from the revolving door that is the DH position) is the bullpen. With Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour (probably) and Rafael Soriano taking their leaves, the Rays are losing all three of their best relievers. Additionally some of the lesser names that were still quality arms (or perhaps not, based on your belief in DIPS theory) such as Randy Choate, Dan Wheeler and Chad Qualls are also probably leaving. It's clear that the bullpen is going to need some work. The chart below will take a quick look at what exactly we're losing in the way of relief.
Altogether, that's 5.2 wins being lost from the bullpen via leverage free WAR, and given the high LIs that relievers face, it would probably convert to even more games lost. Over at The Process Report, they've examined some excellent candidates for non-tendered relievers that maybe talented. The Rays' next relievers may not come from externally, however, but rather from internally. As the title suggests, Jake McGee and Aneury Rodriguez could well be the next members of the Rays' bullpen.
In 2008, Baseball America rated Jake McGee the 15th best prospect in baseball. Given a lefty who had just come off an overwhelmingly successful season and who could touch 99 mph on radar guns, such a rating, while aggressive, was understandable. McGee was considered the 3rd best Rays prospect after Evan Longoria and David Price, above guys like Wade Davis, Reid Brignac, Desmond Jennings, and Jeff Niemann. In 2008 McGee's velocity dropped precipitously, and the culprit was found after a couple months; his elbow had a torn ligament.
Jake McGee's drop from the top of prospect lists in the aftermath of his Tommy John Surgery is well documented. This year, however, McGee finally made his glorious return from rehabbing his injury to the minors. There, he dominated once more, putting up a 2.53 FIP and 3.23 tRA in AA in 88.1 IP. Additionally, scouting reports said that his knockout stuff and outrageously fast fastballs returned.
When September came, Jake McGee was moved to the bullpen and promoted to AAA. There, he absolutely dominated in a brief stint. In 17.1 IP, McGee struck out 27 hitters (that's a K/9 above 14 by the way) while only walking 3 and not giving up a single home run. McGee's FIP was .60 during this time. That is not a typo. Small sample size and all, but those numbers are simply otherworldly. McGee was rewarded with a callup to the big leagues where he wasn't dominant, but he only pitched 5 innings. His fastball, while not always consistent in speed, still averaged 93.5 mph and touched 98 and 99.
The calls for McGee to go to the bullpen have been around forever. Largely due to his gaudy strikeout totals but below-average walk rates and his dominant heater, people have long seen Jake McGee as a sort of second coming of Billy Wagner. Additionally, McGee himself has said he wouldn't mind moving to the bullpen. This is quite an unusual statement coming from a young pitcher who still has starter potential.
The biggest reason for McGee to move to the bullpen may not be his fastball nor the Rays current pen arm shortage but the surplus of arms that the Rays have. The Rays have 6 starters ready to pitch in the majors as of opening day 2011 plus a few looming prospects such as Alex Cobb and Alex Torres who seem very close to hitting the big leagues. While McGee still has David Price levels of upside, he may move to the bullpen simply because the Rays have so many starters (barring a firesale). Perhaps the best option will be to give McGee a few more months in AAA as a starter to see if he can put things together and move him to the majors as a reliever based on how well he does and how well the Rays bullpen is doing. Either way, I trust the Rays scouting and evaluation departments to know how to handle Jake McGee, and if they move him to the pen, he could be a closer sooner rather than later.