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Should The Rays Have Interest In Juan Cruz? A Look at Joaquin Benoit's Bullpen Chain Reaction

We've covered the principle of bullpen chaining on here before. When a reliever goes down due to injury or something else, it sets off a chain reaction for every one else in the bullpen. Roles get shifted causing some pitchers to used in higher leverage situations, pick up more innings, face different types of batters, etc. The same happens when a reliever comes back or is promoted like Joaquin Benoit.

Benoit was used in a low-leverage situation in his return to the big leagues. However, it won't be long before Joe Maddon has a new toy to play with in the latter stages of the game. This allows Maddon to use guys like Grant Balfour, Dan Wheeler and Randy Choate (due to Benoit's decent splits as a reliever) earlier in the game if needed. Benoit's promotion also has an affect on the bullpen chain throughout the organization.

If something were to happen to one of the current Rays' relievers, the options in Durham are pretty limited. On the 40-man roster we have Mike Ekstrom and Dale Thayer. Both have limited major league experience, but if called up would immediately be placed in the mop-up, low-leverage role which currently belongs to Andy Sonnanstine. Outside of those two names, Winston Abreu would seem like the next best bet followed by Heath Rollins.

The point is, with Benoit already here there is less of an insurance policy waiting for the Rays in Durham. Enter Juan Cruz...

It was just last off-season when Cruz was a Type-A free agent. Naturally, Dayton Moore decided what his team needed was a Type-A middle reliever after already handing an awful two-year, nine million dollar contract to another middle reliever in Kyle Farnsworth. The Cruz deal wasn't terrible at two-years and six million dollars, but it also cost the team a second round pick since their first round selection was protected.

Cruz had his worst season in a while as he went 3-4 with a 5.72 ERA/4.92 fielding independent pitching (FIP). After back-to-back seasons in Arizona with a strikeouts per nine (K/9) over 12.3, Cruz managed to get around half of that last year with a K/9 of 6.79.

His walk totals have always been elevated with a 4.72 walks per nine innings (BB/9) for his career. Meanwhile, last season's 5.19 BB/9 was actually lower than the 5.40 he posted in 2008.. He had a relatively normal home run rate (1.07 per nine) and his batting average on balls in play (BABIP) was .278; slightly low, but nothing that crazy.

There seems to be no explanation for the drop off in strikeouts except simple ineffectiveness. His velocity was 94 mph, which is right at his career level, but he induced just 9.1% swinging strikes after double-digit marks in Arizona. Batters simply had more patience against Cruz and swung at pitches out of the zone only 19.2% of the time compared to 30.1% in 2008.

Despite being released last week, Cruz got off to a better start in 2010. Albeit just a five inning sample size, Cruz registered seven strikeouts in 5.1 innings. Of course the four walks shows he's still battling with control and super low O-Swing% of 12.7, and a swinging strike percent of 6.4%, show batters are still laying off the junk.

Cruz still throws in the mid 90s and has reintroduced a cutter to go along with his slider and change-up as secondary pitches. He's a pretty neutral pitcher with ground ball and fly ball rates in the 40% range.

Splits-wise, Cruz is more effective against right-handed batters with a career 3.98 FIP against batters of the same handiness. That said, his 4.55 FIP against lefties is a slightly below replacement level. Looking at control rates, his 2.50 K/BB ratio against right-handed hitters is pretty good. This suggests that limiting him to a Dan Wheeler ROOGY-esque role would serve him best at this point.

I'm not advocating to signing him to a major league deal and inserting him into the bullpen tonight, but for a pro-rated amount of the league minimum, it would be nice to have a career 4.19 FIP pitcher with 570 major league innings under his belt waiting a plane ticket away. After all, J.P. Howell is still on the shelf, and his return was already pushed back from early May in the spring to late-May or early-June. Even a minor setback could set off another chain reaction of events

Of course, this would take the Rays to be interested, and Cruz to be willing to accept a minor league deal, but on paper a partnership seems mutually beneficial.