The Kansas City Royals have become the gold standard for setting up a dominating bullpen by having three elite relievers who all could be closers on other teams. This fantastic trio finishes out most of KC's games and effectively eliminates any chance an opposing team has of attempting a comeback. The Royals used this combination to help propel them to consecutive World Series appearances these past two years.
As a result, other teams are now trying to emulate this focus on the back end of the 'pen, most notably the Yankees, who acquired Aroldis Chapman to go along with their already fearsome duo of Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances. Others include the Red Sox, who acquired Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith, and the Astros, who landed Ken Giles at a steep cost.
The best arms in baseball come at a hefty price, beyond the constraints of the Rays' budget. As always, they need to craft a less costly but equally effective solution.
Introducing yet another addition to the Rays Way
During their press conference at the onset of spring training, Kevin Cash and Matthew Silverman touched briefly upon a plan that they hope to implement this upcoming the season. That plan is to have a stock of relievers in the pen capable of going more than one inning in hopes of keeping more arms fresh and available for use either later in the game or in days to come.
That priority was reiterated by Kevin Cash in a Spring Training media scrum when he was asked about this year's bullpen construction, noting it was more about the end result than the means. "We want guys who can get outs, whether they do it with high velocity or other ways," Cash told reporters. He then delved further into this off-season's mindset, and prioritized multiple inning relief capabilities:
One thing that we're trying to find out this Spring is who's capable of going a little more than an inning. We're not looking to extend pitchers to get into that three-inning mode, but we do want to have flexibility where maybe half the guys in the 'pen on a given night are capable of getting four to six outs for us.
This is a logical progression from the quick hook exhibited by the Rays last season with their starting pitchers.
It is well-established that starting pitchers face diminished returns on their third time facing a batting order. When the Rays were forced to expose several inexperienced starters to major league hitters in 2016 (due to injuries to Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, and Burch Smith), rookie manager Kevin Cash resorted to a quick hook and frequent bullpen usage.
As a result, the Rays starters lead the league in ERA, but the bullpen, with added pressure, lagged behind.
The Rays had 98 instances of a relievers recording four or more outs, and 61 of those outings were scoreless. Those 98 instances reflected the efforts of 20 different pitchers, only eight of whom are still with the team.
Appearances above reflect four outs or more recorded in a relief appearance. Players no longer with the organization are crossed out.
As the above shows, the Rays released or traded several of last year's bullpen arms, but at the same time have retained players responsible for more than 60% of the multiple-inning relief appearances.
With the exception of Ramirez, who will likely begin the season in a starting role, the Rays will have seven relievers capable of going multiple innings at their disposal.
This approach may subvert the more traditional bullpen roles found across baseball
Brad Boxberger will likely continue to be the team's closer, pitching the ninth on a regular basis, but the team will also have Alex Colome, Xavier Cedeno, Steve Geltz, and Enny Romero in high leverage, all with experience handling four or more outs.
The Rays will also be adding Ryan Webb and Danny Farquhar, each of whom they hope will be able to contribute to this effort. Last season Webb appeared in 40 games for the Indians, and pitched through four or more outs on 17 occasions. By comparison, Farquhar functioned as the Mariners long reliever on multiple occasions last season, pitching two full frames on nine occasions. Both fit this new Rays mold.
Photo credit: Hannah Foslien/Getty Images
If the strategy proves to be successful, the Rays may also be able to capitalize on their starting pitcher depth in Durham to continue the trend.
The Rays will have Matt Andriese, Blake Snell, Jake Faria, Taylor Guerrieri, and Jaime Schultz contending for starting roles, as well as Mark Sappington and Andrew Bellatti in the Durham pen to start the season.
Add to that depth Alex Cobb and Chase Whitley, two starters returning from Tommy John surgery this season, as well as relievers Jonny Venters and Neil Wagner. The former two may move other Rays starters to a bullpen role in time, or may assume that role themselves, and the latter two have a long history of pitching into multiple frames as well.
By our count, there are twenty pitchers under team control (including the current starting rotation) who can conceivably cover four or more outs for this club. But even that number fails to recognize other Spring Training invitees like Dana Eveland, Kyle McPherson, or the knuckle ballers Eddie Gamboa and Jeff Howell.
When asked if Alex Colome, who converted from starting last year, was the ideal candidates for multiple inning appearances, Kevin Cash rattled off several names who could fulfill this role, including Bellatti, Farquhar, Andriese, Romero, Eveland, and if his arm could withstand the same workload again, Geltz.
The Rays have assembled an arsenal of arms who can pitch four or more outs for this ball club, and given the development and recovery times for others, the organization should be able to pace those arms throughout the season.
If the Rays are intent on continuing their aggressive hook for starting pitchers, the bullpen should be ready to carry the load, and in longer increments as well.