The Rays bullpen wasn’t great last year. Depending by what metrics you prefer the group was either close to average or well below. Overall the group threw 506.1 innings of 4.09 ERA and 4.45 FIP baseball. That was good enough for a combined 0.1 fWAR or 3.0 RA9 WAR. Truthfully, the results were closer to average than awful, but that high FIP was mostly due to a 1.30 HR/9 rate that was the third highest in the league, while having a 76.9% LOB rate that was fourth highest. That shades the overall performance more toward terrible.
Any way you slice it, the Rays need an improved performance out of the bullpen if they want to be competitive in 2017. The problem is that every team would like to improve their bullpen.
Luckily for the Rays, bullpen arms are plentiful in the free agent market. Unluckily for the Rays, they are not an attractive destination. The three high-end arms of the offseason have signed, and now the richer teams will have their pick of the next round of relievers that have since began signing, and it’s not clear how the Rays will be able to land any player they want.
Last season saw a spike in multi-year reliever signings with 16 pitchers signing such deals. This year things haven’t slowed down as there have already been nine relievers signed for multiple years. The performance of last year’s signing class was nothing to write home about, but that hasn’t deterred teams from taking the jump and paying relievers for multiple years for amounts of money that would be unheard of for all but solid closers. The Rays rarely engage in such bidding wars.
Worse still, if the Rays want to make a potentially impactful addition to the bullpen from the free agent market, they will likely have to give out a contract that makes them uncomfortable, and that’s backfired before. After signing the “established-closer” version of Grant Balfour to a 2/$12MM contract, the Rays were forced to pull the plug just 4.1 innings into his second season.
In the grand scheme of things it won’t completely hamstring the team beyond 2017 if the reliever fails, but it will make things more complicated next offseason if they need to add another free agent reliever along with an ever increasing group of arbitration eligible players. Still, the Rays can’t be fearful of making a mistake. Maybe that’s why the Rays haven’t landed a reliever just yet.
Yesterday one of the Rays potential targets in Daniel Hudson signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates to a 2/$11MM deal that included $3MM in incentives based on games finished.
The Pirates are a team that the Rays should be able to compete with for a free agent, but in this case the Pirates could offer something the Rays currently can’t: A chance to win the closer’s job.
When the Rays have won the bidding for free agents, a major factor has been a better chance at playing time (as we’ve seen with Asdrubal Cabrera or Wilson Ramos in recent years), but in this case having an All-Star closer like Alex Colome is both a blessing and a curse.
The Rays could never afford a reliever the quality of Colome’s on the open market — and they won’t have to. He’ll only be making a little more than league minimum in his last season before being eligible for arbitration.
A free agent reliever will want to have that chance to be a high leverage reliever to increase their earning potential on their next contract for the same reasons Colome would prefer to remain the closer. Any perceived demotion would affect his earning power by millions through his arbitration years.
Any free agent would would join the Rays that fancies themselves a possible closer would have to beat Colome for the job, and Colome is quite good. So let’s say it again: If they want to land a free agent reliever worth his salt, the Rays will have to make a deal that makes them uncomfortable.
It’s the nature of the free agent beast. There’s very little chance that the deal will be safe. The Rays will need to wait out the market a little longer to get “their man” as they won’t be able to pay somebody more to not have the clear path to being the closer, and they’ll likely have to wait until teams with easier paths to the postseason have had their fill.
The Rays need to add somebody, and I’m confident they will. It likely won’t be the pitcher that we want, and maybe not the one the Rays ultimately need to contend. It will likely not be very exciting either, but the Rays need to make the least-bad decision and get the best free agent they can.
Someone not in the market for an opportunity to close, but still capable of being competitive in the AL East.
That’s a hard thing to find.