No team with hopes of contending faced a challenge quite like the Rays over the off season: assemble an entirely new bullpen on a shoestring budget. There was no Plan B. Since the season has just passed through the halfway point, let's take a look at how the new editions have fared and address some questions moving forward.
As I write this piece, the Rays bullpen has a collective 4.09 FIP, which ranks 22nd in baseball. Compare that with last season, when the Rays ranked 6th in baseball and second in the AL with a 3.76 FIP, and you can see there have been some bumps in the road. When you're building from scratch a few bumps are expected.
But when you break the Rays' bullpen down pitcher by pitcher, you can see that the 4.09 FIP figure is a bit misleading.
Kyle Farnsworth: 2.80 FIP
Joel Peralta: 3.64 FIP
Juan Cruz: 3.11 FIP
Those three have combined to throw 101.6 of the team's 205.3 innings. They've been used the most and they've been excellent when called upon. The biggest surprise has been Juan Cruz doing his best Joaquin Benoit impression. After a first two months that saw him walk 17 batters and strike out just 16 Cruz responded with a fantastic June, throwing 11.1 innings while striking out 13 and walking just three. If he can maintain a level of success close to that for the rest of the season I wouldn't mind seeing Cruz share more late inning duty with Peralta.
The trio has been joined by Adam Russell and Cesar Ramos to form the core of the Rays 'pen. Their ERA's look fine at 3.00 and 4.05 respectively, their FIP's of 4.88 and 4.93 aren't so stellar. Russell's 53.9% ground ball rate is nice, however. Ramos is the closest thing the team has to a LOOGY but he hasn't been extremely effective, allowing a .240/.339/.380 line against LHB this season. If you take the combined FIP's of those five pitchers it comes out to 3.87. I know that the innings thrown by Rob Delaney, Brandon Gomes, Jake McGee, etc count the same, but they're not the names that are going to be getting the bulk of the work this season. That's who I'm focused on.
Despite some struggles the Rays have used their relievers pretty effectively in the low, medium, and high leverage situations. The figures in the table below are shown as IP/FIP:
These are all small sample sizes -- I don't expect Joel Peralta's numbers to be that bad all season -- but they're fun to look at. Russell is Mr. Low Leverage, which is where he should be. Farnsworth's excellence has been confirmed once again. Baseball-Reference has a figure called the Average Leverage Index which is the average pressure the pitcher saw in a particular season. 1.0 is average pressure, below 1.0 is low pressure, above 1.0 is high pressure. Farnsworth tops the list at 1.358, Peralta is second at 1.234, while Cruz comes in at .736. I have a feeling that number will change before the season is over. Ramos comes in at .700 while Russell rounds it out with .381.
The five new editions that make up the core of the Rays' bullpen have done very well all things considered.
Now onto the remaining questions:
1. J.P. Howell.
He's a question in himself. If he can regain his 2008/2009 form then the Rays bullpen looks totally different. They would have four relievers who could get you out of any situation. It would also take some of the load off of Cruz and Peralta. Howell has had his ups and downs this season; he was probably thrown into a few too many high leverage situations upon his return. Hopefully the kinks can be worked out in a way that won't hurt the Rays.
2. Andy Sonnanstine
We've said it numerous times, but why is he on this team? He's pitched three innings since June 10th. I'd love to add another position player in place of Sonny, but the Rays don't seem wont to do that. We don't know all of the specifics, but it looks as if Jake McGee is doing well at Durham. He's not going to get any better facing AAA lineups. Ease him into a meaningful role with this bullpen. If not McGee than someone else. Anyone else. Andy, I love you, but you're just taking up space at the moment. The Rays currently aren't constructing the roster in a way that best utilizes the talent available, and it's maddening.