The Rays bullpen was underwhelming, to say the least, in 2016. With a limited budget, free agents with prior but not recent success could be the best option for the Rays as they look to build a strong cohort of middle relievers in front of dominant closer, Alex Colome.
With that in mind, these are a few of the free agency options Tampa Bay could consider:
Hudson is one of the best comeback stories in Major League baseball over the past few years. Coming back from two Tommy John surgeries, Hudson has logged 60+ innings over the past two seasons for the Diamondbacks. Converted into a reliever two seasons ago, he’s has stretches of dominance but has not found consistency.
Yet in an era where talented relievers hold value, he’s an excellent buy-low candidate as a pitcher who throws in the mid-90s and still posted almost a strikeout per inning (8.65 K/9). He posted a 5.22 ERA in 70 appearances, but a 1.66 ERA in his final 25 games. More notably, he had a 3.81 and 3.49 fielder independent pitching ERA over the past two seasons, meaning individually his numbers could improve with better defense behind him.
The key for Hudson will be improving with men on base. He stranded only 61.7 percent of men on base this season in comparison with 69.4 percent the prior season. His percentage of ground balls also decreased while his percentage of line drives increased. Keeping the ball down in the zone should improve those numbers and generate more double plays. If he can generate more ground balls while keeping his 21.6 percent strikeout rate, he should be able to keep hitters off balance on a more consistent basis.
If Arizona wants Hudson to return, they’d likely be considered the front-runners as Hudson himself said “I’ve made no secret that I want to stay here” in a emotional season finale. With the Diamondbacks yet to make a move on the veteran, he’ll certainly be fielding other offers. As a reliever with a plus change-up to compliment his fastball and the ability to potentially go multiple innings, he could be a nice addition to the Rays bullpen.
Matusz had three strong seasons for the Orioles before the wheels falling off in 2016. After being traded to the Braves, he was then waived and signed with the Cubs. After making one start he was then waived by Chicago and sent down to Triple-A Iowa. Yet despite the quick fall from bullpen mainstay to minor leaguer, he still has the potential to be a strong addition to the Rays’ bullpen.
Armed with a four-seam low 90s fastball with good movement up in the zone and a low 80s hard-cutting slider, Matusz lives on both planes of the plate. His circle change is usually up in the zone and results in mostly fly balls. He did have success in a hitter’s park like Camden Yards so he has a good chance of being just as effective at Tropicana Field.
After becoming a full-time reliever in 2013, Matusz posted three seasons of a sub 3.60 ERA, with 34 holds, while increasing his strikeouts per nine innings each season. He stranded 79.6 percent of baserunners and held hitters to a .208 average in 2015, in arguably the best season of his career. His 17.5 strikeout to walk percentage and 1.18 WHIP, and .270 batting average on balls in play all lend credence to the idea that he could be a solid reliever.
However, it was clear that Matusz lost his command in 2016. His 1: strikeout to walk ratio was an indication that he failed to throw strikes. He had his most trouble locating his fastball. Batters were more patient and didn’t chase his fastball and slider and based on his .324 BABIP, they did more damage when they connected. Yet the key for Matusz is that he’ll be 30 next year, is only one year removed from being a capable major league reliever, and his 2016 season lasted only six innings. Being a left-hander should help his market and Tampa Bay could certainly be interested.
Storen was once viewed the future closer for the Nationals, but he had a dreadful 2016 in which he was traded from Washington to Toronto and eventually Seattle. Coming into 2016, Storen was coming off a season with a career-best strikeout rate and looking like he was becoming one of the most dominant relievers in baseball. His fastball was in the mid-90s and his breaking ball looked elite.
Yet, after a brutal season where he posted a 5.23 ERA and allowed hitters to bat .269 against him, he could be available for a contract at a bargain rate as he tries to rebuild his value. Despite the rough year, Storen still has the talent to make an impact in the bullpen. His slider has the lateral break that gives it a cutter-like appearance considering the lack of a vertical drop and more horizontal movement. His two-seamer and four-seam fastball rest in the low 90s and the former has a lot of movement when it’s working.
Three of the last six years, Storen has posted a sub-2.80 ERA, sub-1.02 WHIP, and held hitters to a sub-.210 batting average. The other three, however, he’s posted an ERA above 4.0 and a WHIP above 1.20, and allowed hitters to hit above .260 in two out of those three years.
There is some risk associated with Storen, but considering the potential benefit, he could be an affordable option. The key for Storen will be pitching with men on base. He only stranded 69.5 percent of men on base last season, the lowest of his career and his prior two career lackluster years followed that percentage. That also coincides with his higher walk rates. If the Tampa Bay coaching staff believes he can keep command of his pitches and not rattle with men on base, then he could be a worthwhile investment.
Tazawa is one of the most intriguing free agent candidates as, up until 2015, he was one of the staples of the Red Sox bullpen. Tazawa, 30, fell out of the bullpen rotation in 2016 in mid-August, during a six-game span in which he allowed 10 earned runs.
Statistically, he was as steady as any reliever in baseball in the three years prior to 2015. In 175 and 1/3 innings he posted a sub-3.0 ERA, sub 1.20 WHIP, and 9.3 strikeouts per nine innings. Even during a down season in 2015, he posted a strong fielder independent pitching ERA of 3.05, which was in stark contrast to his 4.23 FIP in 2016.
Tazawa’s fastball had a drop in velocity last season and it could coincide with hitters’ ability to pull the ball when he leaves it over the plate. He also threw his fastball more often the last two seasons in comparison with his more productive prior two seasons. In 2016, that may have led to an uptick in home runs to a startling 1.63 home runs per nine innings. Add in the fact that he had control issues despite a career high in strikeouts per nine (9.79) and it’s easy to see why he could be available to the Rays as a late-inning option.
Yet the value is there for the Rays as Tazawa still has three pitches in his fastball, curveball, and changeup which still have the potential to be at least major league average. He hung the curveball more often last year which was part of the reason he gave up 1.63 home runs per nine, but he still has solid control of his arsenal and barring judgment that the Red Sox overused him during his time in Boston, he could be a Tampa target.
With such a young (and sadly underperforming) bullpen last season, Tampa Bay could certainly use some veterans ahead of Alex Colome. Affordability will be key. With relievers becoming more valuable in free agency and on the trade market each of the last two seasons, the Rays are likely to consider a few talented relievers who are coming off injury or poor performance. Is there a 2010 Joaquin Benoit out there?