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Breaking down the Rays closer situation in 2018

It could get wild if Alex Colome is dealt

MLB: New York Yankees at Tampa Bay Rays Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no better time to speculate on the 2018 plans of MLB teams than the late November doldrums. The Rays have plenty of question marks regarding their 2018 campaigns, and so far in the offseason, there haven’t been many answers.

One spot that wasn’t in flux much in 2017 was the team’s closer. Alex Colome collected 47 of the team’s 53 saves, with the six non-Colome saves coming not as the result of any closer controversy, but rather days off for Colome or games that got out of hand before the ninth. In fact, those 47 saves from our horse-loving closer led all of baseball by six. Yes, there are certainly better metrics for assessing reliever performance (Colome ranked 35th among relievers in fWAR and 48th among relievers in FIP), those saves still tell us that the Rays were willing to hand El Caballo the ball in nearly all their close wins. And they may well be enough to bring the arbitration price for Colome to a figure the Rays would rather see another team paying in 2018.

Marc Topkin has noted that Colome has been popular in trade talks, so there’s at least a possibility that the Rays may need to have the “who’s got the ninth?” conversation in the not-too-distant future. And the offseason is all about at-least-a-possibilities.

So who could be holding down the ninth for the Rays in 2018? Let’s meet the candidates:

The Incumbent

We already made note of Alex Colome, but given the first commandment of MLB offseason rumors (“Objects not in motion stay not in motion”), there’s a very strong chance that Colome will remain a Ray. In that case, he would certainly start the season as the closer, and given his success over the past two seasons, he would have a long leash.

Should Rays fans like this? There are some troubling signs in Colome’s profile, as he declined in nearly every available metric from 2016 to 2017.

Colome’s decline

Season ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9
Season ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9
2016 1.91 2.92 2.75 11.28 2.38
2017 3.24 3.37 4.32 7.83 3.11

On the positive side: he gave up fewer home runs, and he proved reliable for a second straight season (not always a given with bullpen arms), but there are some definite warning signs for those hoping for a shut-down high-leverage arm.

The Re-signing

After consulting with the rest of the DRB elders, the consensus is that, of the Tommy Hunter-Sergio Romo-Steve Cishek trio, Romo is the most likely to return, with Hunter the least likely to return. All three were excellent for Tampa Bay in 2017, and if Colome is indeed traded, whichever of the three returns is likely to be among the top candidates to take the ninth.

Hunter was the only one to start the season in Tampa Bay, and he finished the season with arguably the best season of any Rays reliever. He posted a 2.61 ERA, a 3.29 xFIP, and 1.2 fWAR, tying him with Colome for the highest value out of the pen for the Rays in 2017. His 9.82 K/9 were the highest of any Rays reliever with over 30.0 innings, and he passed the sniff test as one of the Rays relievers who rarely induced ulcers. Of course, all of that is why he is likely to be too expensive for the Rays this offseason.

Romo and Cishek, the two midseason acquisitions, were both excellent in their limited time in St. Petersburg.

Romo and Cishek as 2017 Rays

Player IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9
Player IP ERA FIP xFIP K/9 BB/9
Sergio Romo 30.2 1.47 2.96 4.20 8.22 2.05
Steve Cishek 24.2 1.09 2.14 3.37 9.49 2.55

Of course, the two also combined for fewer innings with the Rays than Hunter had by himself, which is why it might be a bit hair-raising to hand over the closing gig to either of these two before the 2018 season. If the Rays had some hesitancy with either, they could certainly change tacks and bring in a proven, non-Rays commodity...

The Free Agent Signing

The Rays likely aren’t going to lavish a top-tier free agent closer with Daffy Duck vaults of free agents money, but they could certainly engage in some conversations with the fringe top-tier. Wade Davis for 4 years/$60 million is a non-starter (as it should be!), but someone like Pat Neshek at 2 years/$16 million is mighty interesting. There was some Neshek buzz in Tampa Bay around the trade deadline, and with good reason. Neshek was excellent in 2017, finishing the year with a 1.59 ERA and a 1.86 FIP. He struck out 69 and walked just six in 62.1 innings, good for a 11.5 SO:BB ratio that trailed only Kenley Jansen among relievers in 2017.

Tony Watson was strong in 2017; Juan Nicasio was magically healed by the Pirates; I even kind of like Brandon Kintzler.

Would you rather buy-low than buy-high? How about Seung-Hwan Oh? He looked like one of the best relievers in baseball in his rookie 2016 season. (He was a 33-year-old rookie, it must be noted.) He blew up in 2017 (ERA jumped from 1.92 to 4.10; xFIP jumped from 2.88 to 5.04), but relievers are volatile. They deal in the tiniest of sample sizes. It is not at all difficult to imagine Oh bouncing back to his “Final Boss” days of 2016.

The Youngster

I’ll be upfront: Jose Alvarado is who I want closing for Tampa Bay in 2018. To be sure I have little on which to base that wish. He made his MLB debut only last season, and he totaled only 29.2 MLB innings because he was sent back down to the minors after struggling a bit in June, returning later in the season. He’s only 22 years old, and he might well be overwhelmed if handed those ninth inning reins.

That said, he throws harder than nearly anyone else in baseball, he’s hella fun, he’ll be young and cheap for a while, and I just want it to happen, OK?! Alvarado didn’t allow a single run to score in his 11.0 second-half MLB innings last season, and he struck out 15 to just two walks after he made his way back up to the majors in August.

He also did this.

The odds of his closing are about zero, but it would be really cool if it did go down this way. #RoadtoAlvaradoclosing - get that bad boy trending.

The Wild Card

Nathan Eovaldi. More to come on this.

Who are your top closer candidates for 2018?