The Rays depth chart for relievers is remarkably young. With the trade of Jake McGee, the veteran presence in the bullpen has become 29 year old Xavier Cedeno. While he proved to be a great addition to -- and influence on -- the bullpen in 2015, the team may wish to acquire a player with even more experience, whether by trade, signing, or minor league invite.
Using the major league free agent list at MLB Trade Rumors, there are 29 relief pitchers still available, and not one of them is younger than 29 years of age. My goal is to plumb the depths of FanGraphs to see if any of these presumably veteran players would serve the Rays need for a grayer beard than Cedeno's.
I will use two-season totals to get a more robust sample size. Plenty of relievers have one very bad and one very good year right next to each other. If this were last off-season, for instance, you might miss Matt Belisle completely, as his 2013 and 2014 ERAs lagged behind what he put up last year.
First off, let's filter the search down to a FIP- of 100 and an ERA- of 120. That will give us the relievers whose peripherals were at least average, and whose ERA didn't lag too far behind. Including the injured Greg Holland is a bit unfair, but we can keep him in for now for comparison.
The above was sorted by strikeout rate, but if you flip that to be walk rate, Craig Stammen and Tommy Hunter jump to the top. Hunter was covered earlier this week, but I do want to stop and consider Stammen.
A former Nationals reliever, Stammen and his ~$3 million arbitration salary were nontendered as a cost/risk-saving measure. A former elder statesment in the Nationals bullpen, Stammen lost the 2015 season to two full flexor tendon tears. Here's the Washington Post on his recovery:
Stammen said he is doing well, feels strong, has already started throwing and is on track to be ready for spring training. But he had surgery in April to repair two nearly completely torn flexor tendons in his right forearm.
Some past pitchers didn't recover well from the injury. Cincinnati's Homer Bailey eventually needed Tommy John surgery earlier this year when returning from flexor mass tendon surgery, while others did fine. Jonathan Broxton posted a 2.30 ERA in 2014, his first year back from the same procedure.
Stammen was coming off a run from 2012-2014 where he threw the most relief innings in baseball. After the injury, in lieu of taking a vacation as he tried to recover, he stuck around the Nats clubhouse as "a bullpen adviser." He did the majority of his rehabilitation in D.C. to remain a part of the clubhouse and be with teammates.
The Nationals had the opposite of what you'd want in the clubhouse by end of year, but his determination to be a positive influence on teammates is admirable. Patrick Reddington, who manages our Nationals site Federal Baseball, described Stammen as a "quiet leader" that was dearly missed on and off the mound for the Nats last season.
As for Tommy Hunter, after a mid-season deal to the Cubs, Hunter was described as being, "loud and likes to have a good time." Acquired to share the high-leverage load in a post-season push, he went on to save one game for the Cubs in the midst of a meh performance.
Here were Mat's thoughts on Hunter from Monday:
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... 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.
Before I'm tempted to talk about Matt Belisle, let's look at the list a different way. The Rays like K's. Searching only for high strikeout pitchers, there are three names with a K% higher at or above the Rays team average of 22%.
This is a far more manageable list, albeit short.
Carlos Torres had himself a nice season with the Mets last year, although his September performance was hurt by a calf strain. Coming off years of 21%, 24%, and 20% strikeout rates, he was placed on waivers to make room for Antonio Bastardo, and subsequently elected free agency. Such is the cost (and weight) of carrying Bartolo Colon.
Torres and the Mets settled on a $1.05 million salary for 2016 to avoid arbitration shortly before the team designated him for assignment. Notably, Torres's fastball velocity was a career-best 92.1 MPH in 2015, but the same can't be said for his traditional stats. He sported a 4.68 ERA despite a 3.53 FIP. Available on the cheap and with plenty of experience, it's not clear he's the ideal veteran presence, but I'm not convinced he won't find a major league deal this Spring.
From there it should be noted that everyone "better" than Torres appears to be quite injured.
Greg Holland isn't pitching for much of next year, so he cannot help the Rays now. Clippard could, and as with Hunter, we already touched on Clippard's potential earlier this week. Like many on this list Clippard is an injury concern, even though he pitched in high leverage in 2015 for the Mets.
Other seemingly-desirable free agent names are simply hurt. Jason Frasor succumbed to a shoulder strain last year. Sean Marshall (he of a nasty curveball) has had two shoulder surgeries. Bobby Parnell might never be the same.
At this point in the off-season, though, injured targets might be the gamble the Rays need to take on the free agent market.
It's worth noting that this is what the Rays have already done.
Former respectable pitchers Jonny Venters, Neil Wagner and (still-a-prospect) Kyle McPherson are all rehabbing with the Rays this Spring with an eye on making a weak Tampa Bay bullpen into something great. It's possible that another rehabbing name like Craig Stammen or Bobby Parnell could join their ranks, but is it worth the risk?
Bobby Parnell got through one inning in 2014 as the Mets' closer before needing Tommy John surgery, and his return to the Mets last season wasn't a resounding success. Coming off three consecutive years of 22% strikeout rates, Parnell delivered with half that mark in 2015, and with little semblance of control. it's possible the off-season will have treated him well enough to return to form, but if not, Parnell may merely be a cautionary tale for Wagner and Venters.
But by rolling the dice on injured pitchers, the Rays run the risk of ugly stats like the 15% walk rates Parnell showcased last year. Yes, some of the pitchers still available have had quality major league careers, but there's a reason they don't have a contract right now. Few of them seem like a good bet to produce in 2016.
Welcoming Stammen or Parnell is an easy bet if the Rays think there is enough room to not clog the relief pipeline (and keep all parties happy), or if they already have their doubts about the rehabbing names above.
Taking chances on low-cost, high-variance rehabbing relievers would be the conclusion of this article, but it's already part of the Rays game plan for 2016, and I'm not sure "the answer" will be found in doing that again.
If the Rays are one the lookout for more veteran relievers, they seem unlikely to find a solution on the free agent market, and will need to look to the trade block if they want to sure up the bullpen.