The Bullpen Battle: Who's in the Mix?

Spring Training is normally viewed as a time of "competition" for roster spots, but how often is it ever the case that there's a true fight for a final roster spot? Most teams enter Spring Training with certain favorites already lined up for each roster spot, with maybe one or two slots open for debate. This lack of competition can make Spring Training tedious and uninteresting after a while, since really, what's the point of caring if it's merely about getting everyone warmed up for the season?

This year, though, the Rays have two legitimate competitions: Felipe Lopez versus Elliot Johnson for back-up utility infielder, and well....the entire bullpen. While the Lopez v. Elliot debate is interesting in its own right, this year's bullpen composition is massive and is already attracting all sorts of attention. Consider:

Bullpen2_medium

Yesterday, Joe Maddon came out and stated that he fully expects to use a "closer by committee" in his bullpen at the beginning of the season, but who's even going to be in the bullpen? That's a massive list of candidates - all of whom you can make persuasive arguments for one way or the other - and there are only three spots left with no sure-fire frontrunners.

To make things easier to follow this next month, let's try and narrow that list down.

Elimination Round

We can start off by eliminating some of the obviously weaker candidates. Bayliss and Bootcheck have put up some decent numbers in Triple-A, but neither of them looks particularly noteworthy or has a better track-record than other candidates. Bayliss has had success in Triple-A recently (~4.00 FIP over the last two years), and could be a viable option if he can keep his walks down. Also, Bootcheck has posted impressive minor league strikeout rates (around 11 batters per nine over the last few seasons), but he's struggled with his command and walked over 5 batter per nine in his most recent stints in the majors. Both have potential to break out in 2011, but they're simply too far down the list. Cross their names off.

Next, Matt Bush, Brandon Gomes, and Cesar Cabral are all intriguing options with live arms, but promoting them to the majors would require all of them to skip levels in the minor leagues. Bush only threw 13.2 innings last season (none above the Advanced-A level), and Cesar Cabral has also never thrown above Advanced-A. Gomes is a bit more of a possibility, as he struck out 11.5 batters per nine last year in Double-A, but I can't remember the last time the Rays have had a pitching prospect skip a level of the minor leagues. Even David Price had to pay his dues in Triple-A, so I doubt Gomes jumps immediately to the majors.*

* Note: Let me be clear, I'm not saying I wouldn't like it if Gomes jumped to the majors. His minor league numbers are impressive and I think he's got a case for jumping right to the majors. I'm just saying it's not like the Rays to jump a player over a level, so it'd be out of the ordinary.

On the injury front, both J.P. Howell and Juan Cruz will likely pitch with the major league team at some point this season, but they're both recovering from injuries and will not start the season with the team. Also, as much as I'd like Hayhurst to break camp with the big-league club, he hasn't pitched professionally since 2009 due to an arm injury. He could possibly see time at the majors this season, but the Rays aren't likely to rush him back and put him in their major league opening day bullpen.

What's that leave us with?

So in the end, my guess is the final three bullpen slots come down to these six players:

Bullpen2_medium

Which of these players deserve to make the bullpen? I think we'd all love to see Jake McGee make the bullpen, but that depends on if the Rays are willing to making him a starter. Also, if McGee makes the bullpen, do the Rays then carry another lefty like Ramos, or do they simply use McGee in situations where they'd normally use a LOOGY? And if they do take McGee, then who do you choose: Delaney or Wade?

Even with a narrowed down list, there are still plenty of questions and no easy answers. We'll be covering these players over the course of Spring Training, and I imagine Maddon will be watching their progress closely. This looks to be a close fight for those final few spots, and it should give us something extra to pay attention to during Spring Training this year.

Who would you like to see make the bullpen roster to begin the season? Any thoughts?

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