The Rays have been able to check off many items on their list of things to accomplish this off season, adding considerable production to their line up. Remarkably they were able to add all of those bats while only giving up one starter, Nate Karns, and one reliever, Jake McGee.
Looking at the rotation and the system's depth, we know that the Rays can fill the void created by Karns' departure internally. Finding one or more players to fill McGee's shoes might be more challenging.
The search for a new high leverage reliever is shaped by several factors. First, do the Rays have internal options for this role? Then, how much might the Rays be willing to spend for a free agent reliever, and which relievers are available on the market?
Projected Rays Pen
The Rays pen is expected to feature RHP Brad Boxberger returning as the closer. He had been included in some off-season trade rumors, but with McGee gone it's quite likely that he'll remain with the Rays. He'll be joined by RHP Alex Colome, who had both starting and relief roles last year, and LHP Xavier Cedeno, who may handle setup duties depending on the match up.
Along with the trio above, the Rays expect to return RHP Steve Geltz who was a critical part of the 2015 pen and could also handle setup duties, and may add newcomer RHP Danny Farquhar and the out-of-options LHP Enny Romero. For long-relief duties, RHP Matt Andriese can be counted on with a successful rookie season now behind him.
These seven pitchers likely to make up the Rays pen are a fairly young bunch. Between them, they average just over 27 years old, have thrown in a total of 653 games, good for a total of 782.1 innings (for perspective, Craig Kimbrel alone has played in 355 games with 348.1 IP).
Will this lack of experience become a factor for the 2016 Rays bullpen? Without a veteran presence, will the pen handle the pressure of a playoff position battle? The Rays might look to the free agent market for a more experienced reliever.
Free Agent Relief Options
As economists like to tell us, there's "no free lunch" -- and that is especially true when it comes to the market for relief pitchers this year. Minor league free agents and waiver claims are unlikely to fill the void left by Jake McGee.
Salaries keep mounting, and it's particularly hard on franchises like the Rays who really need to keep a watchful eye on every penny spent. But as spring training approaches, there's may be bargains out there. As DRB has noted previously, the Rays may have some money to spend.
The free agent candidates include the following intriguing options. I'll touch on three from within the remaining free agent list that may be positive additions to the Rays pen.
Tyler Clippard - RHP - 30
Clippard is at the top of the free agent list. He has the experience the Rays seek with 489 GP and 562 IP behind him, and also has some closing experience with 53 saves to his credit. With the Rays, he'd likely fill the setup role, something he's more accustomed to doing than closing. His career stats against RHB (.199/.287/.361) and LHB (.182/.265/.307) make him perfect for the role.
MLBTR predicted he'd get in the vicinity of 3 years at $18 million, which averages out to $6 million per season, something the Rays could theoretically afford. So if he's so successful and possibly affordable, why is he still on the market?
Beyond the Boxscore's Spencer Bingol took that issue on when he wrote over the weekend, "Why is Tyler Clippard still a free agent?". Within the article, he makes many great points about some issues that can be pointed to as reason for his being available, including:
I'm certainly not qualified to proclaim a pitcher injured, but the abrupt, mid-season velocity decrease and lowered release point (a factor that has been statistically correlated to injury) are reasons for concern. These components compromise Clippard's trademark "rising" action on his fastball, and threaten the changeup that thrives off its similarity to the pitch.
Especially with pitchers who have been used as much as Tyler Clippard , a natural break down in velocity is expected after several seasons of his degree of usage. Since 2009, he has thrown 524.2 innings - by far the most of any reliever, and 44.1 innings more than the second place pitcher (Luke Gregerson).
The article also shows a graph of the drop in velocity which is very telling and may correlate with his unimpressive stats down the stretch. But with this in mind, and his past performance mixed in, should the Rays take a shot on Clippard in hopes that he'll come out of his 2015 drop off unscathed? Or do they walk away and look for help elsewhere?
Bingol does mention the possibility of an incentive laden deal being something Clippard may have to agree to in order to give himself a shot at a larger contract than he otherwise may get. What may be overlooked at this point is the fact that Clippard played High School baseball for New Port Richey HS, Florida, not far from the Trop and could be enticed to return to the area if the Rays make a decent contract offer.
Clippard made $8.3 million in 2015, but with the way his season ended it wouldn't be surprising to see him sign for close to the predicted $6 million average annual value or lower, with some incentives included. Obviously the Rays would need to vet his medical records before offering a long term contract. Clippard could be considered a possible free agent target that the Rays could afford to sign.
Ryan Webb - RHP - 29
The Clearwater, Florida native is another attractive free agent target the Rays may consider. Unlike Clippard, he doesn't have the closing experience (and famously so), but he still has more experience than any Rays reliever currently has with 356 GP and 376 IP under his belt. As with Clippard, he had a rough Sept/Oct with a .310/.344/.379 line against for that period, but still came out of 2015 with decent overall stats.
What Webb did right in 2015 was increase his GB% to 59.2% while simultaneously lowering his FB% from 28.6% in 2014 to 19.7% in 2015. He neutralizes LHB well as they only managed a .224/.290/.341 line against him last season, and he rarely gives up a big inning, allowing 2+ ER only four times in 40 GP.
Another enticing aspect of signing Webb as a free agent is that there are no obvious injury worries, although a drop in velocity over the last 2 seasons (down from 95 to 92 mph on average) raises some red flags. That he was released from his contract by the Dodgers after they traded for him is another indication Webb may not be an effective addition.
Still, Webb did enjoy success in the AL East with the Orioles in 2014, and did better than that - statistically speaking -with the Indians last season. So it's entirely possible that Webb isn't getting his due in being able to pitch his way through innings vice powering his way through.
There's a better-than-average chance that Webb will be forced to take much less than he'd like to obtain an MLB contract in 2016. Should it be low enough for the Rays to take a shot, he could be a valuable addition that has the experience the Rays may be looking for. Although his addition wouldn't be nearly as impactful as Clippard's, it could strengthen the overall composition of the pen.
Tommy Hunter - RHP - 29
Unlike the other two on this list, Hunter was throwing more heat than ever before when the 2015 season ended. A converted starter, Hunter's velocity has improved to working in the upper 90s and he's done away with his change up, opting instead for a breaking ball that works between 83-86 MPH.
Once acquired by the Cubs, Hunter did face some struggles and never did seem to get comfortable there. He allowed a .306/.306/.612 line against at Wrigley, something that likely forced the Cubs to move on to someone else for 2016.
More interestingly in 2015, he managed to hold the Yankees, Blue Jays, and Red Sox to a combined 1 ER through 11.1 IP, keeping them to 9 H, 4 BB, and achieving 12 SO. Small sample size warnings aside, his comfort in the AL East could be an important part of the Rays making a possible bid for his services.
Hunter may have less relief experience than the other two on this list, but he has them both beat when it comes to experience in the AL East. Rumor has it that he's holding out for a multi-year deal:
Hearing that former #Orioles reliever Tommy Hunter has intrigued teams, but he's holding out for a two-year contract. #OriolesTalk— Rich Dubroff (@RichDubroffCSN) January 26, 2016
Assuming he's looking for an average annual value around or below the $5 million dollar mark, it may be something the Rays want to get involved with.
The velocity is there, he's gathered a decent amount of pen experience, and he's still young enough to improve and mesh with a group that are all around his age. Of the three on this list, he very well may be the most likely to land with the Rays for all of those reasons.
It's entirely possible that the Rays decide to promote within their system. Andrew Bellatti's slider and multiple Triple-A starters will be available for promotion, and some of the top prospects, such as Taylor Guerrieri, may reach innings limits at some point in the season that make them attractive additions to the pen.
The Rays also have some veteran depth in Durham, with Johnny Venters, Dana Eveland, and the rehabbing Burch Smith all vying for a look. Jhan Marinez and Tyler Sturdevant round out the competition, with Marinez being a truly intriguing option.
Another route would see the Rays making a trade for relief help. Whether it's Mark Melancon who was rumored to be on the trade block earlier in the off season, or another prominent reliever, the Rays have plenty of talent to trade in their system and have shown they're not afraid to use it.
When you at AL East additions like Aroldis Chapman, Craig Kimbrel, and Drew Storen, you can't help wonder whether the Rays are short one high-leverage relievers.
McGee is particularly hard to replace, given his effectiveness against both handed hitters. But there is available and affordable talent on the free agent market that should be considered and could help fill a good portion of the void.