Due to the departure of Tommy Hunter and Steven Cishek via free agency, the Rays bullpen will be filled with players trying to win roles in the midst of the club’s hopes to be competitive in 2018.
Rays relievers combined for the 8th-best ERA in baseball a year ago (3.83). Collectively the unit was worth 4.6 WAR, according to Fangraphs.com, 10th-best in the bigs.
While they are certainly going to miss the veteran arms of Hunter and Cishek, they have a surplus in-house to fill an eight-man bullpen. In case you’re wondering exactly how much “surplus” the Rays possess, it will do you well to continue reading.
Despite offseason trade rumors, Alex Colome will continue donning the Rays uniform and will handle closing duties.
In 2017, Colome’s stats all took a step backwards, although he remained effective. His ERA jumped to 3.24 from 1.91, and his SO rate decreased from 11.8/9 to 7.8/9 while his BB/9 went from 2.38 to 3.11. The league likely had better scouting on Colome, but his pitch mix also changed substantially as he leaned more on his cutter than his sinker in 2017 as compared to 2016, as you can see here, courtesy of Brooks Baseball.
However, he still earned the most saves of any closer (47 with six blown saves) in baseball and, for the most part, remained one of the more stable arms at the back of the Rays pen.
Proven, major league arms
As the 2017 season came to a close, the Rays, despite being under .500, featured one of the top bullpens in the majors thanks to their additions at the trade deadline. They brought in the likes of Steve Cishek, Sergio Romo, and Dan Jennings to help compliment Alex Colome and Tommy Hunter, both of whom were already having fantastic seasons.
After the departure of Cishek and Hunter, Romo, Jennings, Andriese, and newly-acquired Daniel Hudson make up the non-closer list of relievers with major-league experience to be locks on the Opening Day roster.
Romo, who recently signed a one-year, $2.5 million contract to stay with the Rays, struggled with the Dodgers last season before finishing strong with a 1.47 ERA / 2.96 FIP over 25 appearances with the Rays. As of now, Romo looks to be the set-up guy for Colome and will be used heavily against right-handed bats, which he’s excelled against his entire career.
2018 will be Romo’s 11th season in the majors, having made his debut with the San Fransisco Giants during the 2008 season. He stayed with the Giants through the 2016 season, and while with San Francisco he became a fan favorite and enjoyed plenty of success during the team’s World Series runs as their closer.
I can only imagine the Rays are thrilled to have their batboy back in the clubhouse.
Jennings, acquired near last year’s trade deadline, came in as more than a rental, as he’s under team control until 2020—an added bonus that must have appealed the Rays front office. The southpaw posted a 3.45 ERA across 77 relief appearances for the White Sox and Rays last season.
With the Rays, it’s comforting to know he’s capable of going multiple innings, picking battles against lefties and groundball-susceptible batters.
Last year, Hudson’s first in Pittsburgh, he struggled with a 4.38 ERA and 4.34 FIP. His 24.4% strikeout rate was just under his career high of 24.5% set in 2015. The walk rate ballooned to 12.2%. In contrast, in 2015-16 after transitioning to the bullpen, he had walk rates of 8.2% and 8.6%.
As JT stated last week:
Since going to the bullpen full time in 2015 Hudson has thrown 189.2 innings with a 4.46 ERA and 3.87 FIP. He’s posted a strong 23.5% strikeout rate with a below average 9.7% walk rate. Hudson spent a lot of the time in a very hitter friendly environment in Arizona but survived, then struggled upon joining Pittsburgh’s ‘pen.
Bar a disastrous spring training, Hudson looks to be a lock to make the Opening Day roster. If the team can make some tweaks to improve his results, he has the potential to be a go-to option in the pen for Kevin Cash.
Unproven, but talented
Jose Alvarado made his MLB debut last season, tallying just 29.2 MLB innings because of his trips to and from the minor leagues. His potential is exciting, as the 22-year-old didn’t allow a single run to score in his 11.0 second-half MLB innings last season, striking out 15 to just two walks after he made his way back up to the majors in August.
Nine pitches, three strikeouts. That's immaculate work by José Alvarado. pic.twitter.com/ubr8PZ1uKk— Tampa Bay Rays (@RaysBaseball) August 5, 2017
Ryne Stanek, another flamethrower blessed with a fastball that reaches the upper 90s, had his welcome to the Major Leagues last season, and he showed some pluses and some minuses. If he can find the strike zone a little more (5.4 BB/9 in 2017) often and his off-speed offering comes along, he could be a big-time force and give Cash an electric swing-and-miss arm out of the bullpen.
Due to eight off days in a 38-day window, the Rays are reportedly going with a four-man rotation for the first six-plus weeks of the season. As a result, Matt Andriese will move to the bullpen and work as the Rays long-inning reliever to start the 2018 campaign.
The 28-year-old finished the 2017 season with a 5-5 record and a 4.50 ERA in 17 starts and one relief appearance. His tendency for short outings led to accumulating only 86 innings with a 76:28 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
”Matt’s been there and done it,” Cash said in a recent interview with Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re trying to set him for six weeks of building something that we know we’re going to lean on him for. … Let him get prepared, see how his arm responds to shorter workloads, see how his arm bounces back.”
Having worked out of the bullpen before, Andriese shouldn’t have a hard time adjusting to a relief role.
Competing for jobs
This is where it gets tricky.
There are a plethora of candidates competing for a job in the Rays bullpen, here are just a notable few: Chaz Roe, Dustin McGowan, Austin Pruitt, Jaime Schultz, Andrew Kittredge and Chih-Wei Hu.
Roe: Out of options. Acquired from the Braves last July, missed most of the 2017 season. Appeared in nine games for the Rays allowing one run in 8.2 innings and has a killer slider. The Rays hope he’s a better version of what Dana Eveland could have been.
McGowan: Signed minor-league contract with a non-roster invitation to spring training Posted bounce-back season in 2016, but struggled last year in second season with Marlins. 35 years old, can eat innings (77.2 frames over 63 appearances). Overall, rough season with 4.75 ERA with 7.4 K/9 and 3.1 BB/9 as Marlins relief man in 2017. Can make Opening Day roster with strong spring training performance.
Pruitt: Was up-and-down last year for Rays. Logged 83 innings, including eight starts, posting a 5.31 ERA. Strong candidate to make bullpen if spring training bolds well.
Schultz: Converted starter. Would’ve made MLB debut last season if he didn’t suffer groin injury in April. Can amp fastball up to 98 with a power curve. Exciting young arm waiting for opportunity.
Kittredge: Acquired in 2016 trade from Mariners. Was promoted for his major-league debut just after the 2017 All-Star break. Posted phenomenal numbers in Triple-A (68.1 IP, 1.45 ERA, 10.27 K/9), and shined after promotion (15.1 IP, 1.76 ERA, 8.22 K/9).
Hu: Moved to a relief role last season and performed well in Durham, posting a 3.06 ERA in 61.2 innings. Scattered appearances with Rays (outings in April, May, June, and September), allowing three runs on five hits in 10 innings.
But even with these front runners in mind, that’s not even mentioning non-roster invitees that have major league experience who will also be competing for the bullpen: Cody Hall, Adam Kolarek, Colton Murray, Vidal Nuno, Forrest Snow, Dan Runzler, Evan Scribner, Ryan Weber, Hunter Wood, and of course Jonny Venters.
To add to that, there is a mix of non-roster invitees and 40-man roster pitchers who have a chance, however slim, at making the Opening Day roster despite not having an ounce of major league experience: Ian Gibaut, Ruben Alaniz, Diego Castillo (!), and the Durham starting depth Yonny Chirinos, Jose Mujica, and Ryan Yarbrough.
The #Rays Kevin Cash was impressed by Yarbrough and Chirinos, says they are open-minded to the point that both are in competition for bullpen spots to open the year.— Neil Solondz (@neilsolondz) February 28, 2018
The final cut
As of now, I have six locks to make the Opening Day roster: Alex Colome, Sergio Romo, Dan Jennings, Jose Alvarado, Daniel Hudson and Matt Andriese. After that, Roe and Pruitt will likely make the roster and give depth to the bullpen.
However, because of the unproven nature of the latter two, they will need to turn in solid spring performances to solidify their bullpen chances. If not, they could find themselves on the outside looking in with Stanek, McGowan, Schultz, Kittredge, and Hu fighting for a major league spot.
Every one of these players mentioned has a legitimate chance at cracking the Rays bullpen, whether it is on the Opening Day squad or as part of the Durham shuttle.
Booming with potential, I think it’s the flamethrowers Ryne Stanek and Jose Alvarado, with Gibaut and Castillo in the wings, that could be the difference in delivering a bullpen Cash can rely on.
Putting together the Rays bullpen won’t be an easy task for the Rays, but one thing is certain: they have plenty of fish to choose from.