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What should we expect from the Rays bullpen in 2017?

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The Rays' bullpen was a major weakness in 2016 and has to turn around for any success in 2017.

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Jumbo Diaz
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As all Tampa Bay Rays fans are aware, the 2016 bullpen performed very poorly. As a group, they combined to pitch to a 4.09 ERA (11th in the American League), 4.45 FIP (last in the American League) and produced an AL-worst 0.1 Wins Above Replacement (fWAR). As for the individuals, there were not many positives outside of Alex Colome and Xavier Cedeno. Fortunately, many of the prime troublemakers are off the team. Enny Romero was traded recently, Dana Eveland was cut, and Steve Geltz and late season fill-in Kevin Jepsen are long gone. Pitchers such as Brad Boxberger and Danny Farquhar are still here, but need to improve off disappointing seasons.

Right now, Colome and Cedeno appear to be safe bets to make the Opening Day 'pen, with the other high leverage arm Brad Boxberger likely starting the year on the disabled list. Farquhar (no options remaining) and Erasmo Ramirez (longman) should also have a spot on the team as well, bringing the overall count to four of five arms healthy.

Newcomers Tommy Hunter (on a minor league deal) and Shawn Tolleson (one option remaining) have the leg up on locking up the final two bullpen spots from a season long perspective, presuming both get through Spring Training unscathed, while Boxbegrer's impending DL trip opens the door for out-of-options righty Jumbo Diaz. recently acquired on waivers, to crack the roster.

Rule 5 selection Kevin Gadea's recent elbow injury takes him out of the equation, at least for the first half of the year, while other young arms (like Ryne Stanek) have already been reassigned to the minors. Ryan Garton, Jaime Schultz, and Jumbo Diaz represent the biggest competition to the last couple pitchers mentioned, but they are still long shots. An Erasmo trade could clear things up if the Rays have faith in Diaz to take his mop up role.

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Projections

Now that we've clarified who is actually going to be in the pen, what will these players produce? According to Fangraphs' ZiPS projection model, there could be reason for optimism for an improved Rays 'pen.

Farquhar is projected to pitch to a 3.79 ERA and 3.92 FIP. While that would be a large drop from his 2016 run prevention, improved peripherals should lead for a better ERA than the projection. Along with his grand second half (1.46 ERA, 33.3% K%, 11.1% BB%, and 3.11 FIP), Farquhar could be in store for a big season if he can dial back in.

Boxberger struggled with core muscle injuries last season and has lat muscle/back issues so far this spring. Health is Boxberger's biggest concern at the moment, but if/when he gets those issues aside, he will have some work to do to mitigate his recent strike-throwing conundrum. Over the course of his career, he has walked 4.55 batters per nine, and only has one major league season (his career-best 2014 season) where he has walked fewer than three batters per nine. ZiPS projects for Boxberger to return to his 2015 form. A 3.68 ERA and 3.93 FIP would be welcomed production from a 7th/8th inning setup man.

Erasmo doesn't provide much hope with his relief production, as he owns a career 4.25 ERA and 4.81 FIP in 118 2/3 innings out of the pen. His starting numbers are significantly better, but the Rays already have five starting pitchers, along with Chase Whitley, Jose De Leon, Austin Pruitt, Brent Honeywell, Chih-Wei Hu and Jacob Faria knocking on the door. Trading Erasmo may be the best for the Rays and the player. As it stands, however, Erasmo is set for another suboptimal year out of the pen. ZiPS projects for a 4.08 ERA and 4.61 FIP. Being put in fewer high leverage situations and fewer games overall may help those totals, but Erasmo is not a pitcher we should expect to hold leads late.

The final group all bring different attributes to the mound but are still all the same wild card. Tommy Hunter had a lost 2016 season after suffering multiple injuries In the limited time he did pitch, he was solid. He pitched to a 3.18 ERA and 3.06 FIP over 34 innings for playoff contenders. His unsustainably low 0.26 HR/9 rate will be higher this season, but the power armed ground ball pitcher could still be a useful low-leverage pitcher. ZiPS projects a 3.81 ERA and 3.70 FIP for Hunter.

Shawn Tolleson was also on the disabled list in 2016 but was much less productive when healthy. A mix of time away for family leave and injury cut his stint as the Rangers closer short, but his peripherals show he could be a classic Rays bounce back candidate. In 36.1 innings Tolleson ran a career-high 52 percent ground ball rate in 2016 and yet suffered through a huge home run spike (1.98 HR/9). His HR/FB ratio was twice as high as the prior two seasons (jumped from 12% to over 24%). If his .372 BABIP and 59% LOB% regress to norms, he should be another useful low-leverage pitcher. ZiPS projects for a 3.97 ERA and 3.69 FIP in 2017.

The now 33-year-old Jumbo Diaz is coming off a confounding season. He prevented runs at a better rate than he ever did before with a 3.14 ERA, but his 5.24 FIP showed a different story. Indeed, Diaz had a career-low strikeout rate, career high walk rate and yielded more long balls in 2016 than he ever did before. While Diaz is a long shot to make the roster, the fact that he would have to be passed through waivers makes him a mandatory pitcher to watch in the last couple weeks of spring now that he’s joined camp from the World Baseball Classic (2 G, 1.2 IP, 2 K, 1 BB, 2 ER). If the Rays do indeed trade Erasmo, they may sorely need him.

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Jumbo Diaz
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Conclusion

The Rays pen is somewhat in flux, and the Opening Day bullpen will almost definitely be different than what we will see in the middle of the season. Young power arms such as Gadea, Schultz, and flamethrower Ryne Stanek will get looks throughout the season, but as it stands the Rays bullpen should be better in 2017 than 2016, through addition and subtraction.