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Tampa Bay Rays season preview: The bullpen

Which players could make the most difference in the Rays bullpen?

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Rays are a big question mark. With the departure of familiar faces like Evan Longoria, Steven Souza Jr., and Corey Dickerson, there is a lot of uncertainty surrounding the team. Are the Rays punting on 2018? Not exactly, but the Rays front office isn’t exactly instilling confidence in their fans.

One of the more uncertain spots of the 2018 team is the Rays’ bullpen. Outside of closer Alex Colome — who many did not expect to still be playing in Tampa Bay in 2018 — and Sergio Romo, there aren’t many sure things in the bullpen. Even our season preview of the Rays roster couldn’t nail down more than four names.

Read More — Rays Season Preview: The Opening Day roster is almost complete

So let’s take a closer look. How is the bullpen going to shake out?

Bullpen Locks

These are players that are on either Major League deals, or who have run out of options.

Alex Colome

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Alex Colome, by the numbers, actually had a down year last year compared to 2016, only striking out 20.6% compared to 31% in 2016. He also walked more batters at a 8.2% clip instead of 6.6%. However, that down year in 2017 was still good for a 3.37 ERA and a MLB leading 47 saves.

Colome remaining in camp is proof the Rays’ aren’t tanking just yet. There were plenty of rumors swirling around the All Star closer, but nothing came to fruition. If the Rays compete, he’s here to stay. If they don’t he’s likely gone at the trade deadline. Either way, he’s here Opening Day.

Daniel Hudson

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Acquired in the Corey Dickerson trade along with infielder Tristan Gray, Daniel Hudson spent 2017 in Pittsburgh in hopes of landing the closer job left by Mark Melancon. Instead he posted a 4.38 ERA with a 12% walk rate and allowed a .245 average against him, and lost the job to Felipe Rivero.

On the bright side, he did strikeout a career high 24.4% batters and stranded 71% of batters on base. His ERA has been consistently above his FIP, so if he can get the walk rate down he should be serviceable with a solid defense behind him.

You can take a closer look at Hudson here.

Sergio Romo

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Romo was one of the bright spots of the Rays’ 2017 season, and looked great at the end of last year, posting a 1.47 ERA with a 24.1% strikeout rate and walking 6% of batters in 30 innings with the club.

The former Giants’ closer signed a $2.5 million deal with the Rays and is already building on his strong 2017 finish by only allowing 1 hit over 2.2 innings this spring.

Chaz Roe

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at New York Yankees Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

Chaz Roe has been the biggest surprise this spring. Acquired last year from the Braves, Roe spent some time in the Rays’ minor league system before joining the MLB roster in September. He had a strong September, and carried that into the spring, where he has a 1.80 ERA with 5 strikeouts in 8 IP.

A pitchFX darling, his slider is baffling.

On the bubble

Two players we can pencil into the bullpen might have reasons they do not make the Opening Day roster of relievers.

Matt Andriese

Tampa Bay Rays v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Andriese should come as no surprise to Rays fans. He’s been a solid addition to the bullpen after struggles late in games as a starter, and was striking out 20% of batters while walking 7.5% in a 2017 that included injury.

He will be the first call when the Rays need a 4th/5th starter, and with the recent Spring Training inconsistencies of Jake Faria, he could see himself deployed as a starter instead of the bullpen as early as the second series of the year. However, he’s the most experienced of the Rays’ multi-inning relievers, and is likely to stay in that role.

Dan Jennings

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The acquisition of Dan Jennings last year at the trade deadline in exchange for Casey Gillaspe was supposed to be the Rays “going for it.” They went out and got a much-needed lefty, but the result was less than desirable. Now with a new emphasis on long men in the bullpen, Jennings and his $2.3 million salary may not make the roster in 2018.

Jennings is known for having an elite groundball rate, and actually posted a career best 62.5% with the Rays in 18 IP. However, the walks went WAY up to 14.6% from 10.3% during his time with the White Sox, while the strikeouts went down to 15.6% from 20.5% in that same time.

In the Hunt

According to the Rays, the plan is for the team to roll with eight bullpen spots. This all could change, but with our bullpen nearly set, that leaves two or three more spots up for grabs. Lets take a look at who’s left in camp and could potentially grab an Opening Day spot.

Jose Alvarado

Tampa Bay Rays Photo Day Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Alvarado might be one of the most exciting prospects to watch. He pitched 30 innings for the Rays in 2017, in which he went 0-3 with a 3.64 ERA. Alvarado has a blistering fastball that sits at 98 MPH paired with a 85 MPH curveball. That combo struck out 23% of batters while walking 7.3% and holding opponents to a .211 average. This spring, he has a 0.00 ERA on 1 hit, struck out 6, and walked 2 in 5 innings of work. In a vacuum, he would be a lock, but probably starts the season in Durham and is one of the first call ups due to him still having options.

Yonny Chirinos

MLB: Spring Training-Tampa Bay Rays at Baltimore Orioles Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

Yonny Chirinos has been one of the most consistent starters this Spring, and is getting a long look by the Rays. In 12 IP Chirinos has struck out 11 batters and posted a 5.25 ERA. In AAA Durham last year, Chrinos struck out 20% of the batters faced, and only walked 4.0% in 141 IP, resulting in an impressive 2.74 ERA. He is stretched out to be a starter but could serve as a multi inning weapon, thanks to some neat deception in his delivery.

Andrew Kittredge

Tampa Bay Rays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Omar Rawlings/Getty Images

By the numbers, Kittredge was a solid call up for the Rays in 2017. He had a 1.72 ERA with a 21.2% strikeout and 9.1% walk rate in 15 IP. But he also left a crazy 92% of runners on base, and a 13.3% of his fly balls left the park.

His Triple-A numbers are much more impressive and promising. He struck out almost 30% of batters faced while walking only 6% between Duhram and Tacoma over the past two years. So far this spring he has a 8.10 ERA over 6.2 IP.

If he can replicate his Triple-A numbers at the MLB level, he will be a welcomed addition to the bullpen.

Austin Pruitt

Tampa Bay Rays v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Austin was a surprise addition in 2017, and earned a save and seven wins en route to an overall 5.31 ERA. He rode the Durham shuttle back and forth, but during his longest stint in August of last year he had a serviceable 3.86 ERA in 35 IP. His strikeout rate was not impressive at 14.8%, but he kept his walk rate down at 4.2%.

Thus far it’s a mixed verdict: He’s not good. Hes not terrible. But he has also proved himself to be a capable major league pitcher in his dominance over the Astros in a mid-season start. He’ll probably be in the bullpen to start 2018.

Ryan Yarbrough

MLB: Spring Training-Minnesota Twins at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Another Lefty, Yarbrough has also impressed the Rays this spring. in 10.2 IP he has a sterling 2.53 ERA with 6 strikeouts. Last year he was in the AAA Durham rotation, posting a 3.43 ERA in 157.1 IP. He struck out 24.1% of batters while only walking 6.1%

Bill Chaistain of MLB.com believes that Yarbrough or Chirinos have a legit shot of making the OD team.

With the announcement that the Rays will be going to a bullpen day as a fifth starter, they are looking at guys who can pitch multiple innings, and can re-boot a day or two later to pitch again. Chirinos and Yarbrough both fit that mold.

His likelihood of relieving seems higher in light of LHP Anthony Banda’s demotion to Triple-A to continue developing as a starter.

Johnny Venters

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Who doesn’t love a comeback story? Typically, Non-Roster Invites’s are outside shots at starting in the bullpen with the Rays, and rightfully so there is one man left standing among the NRI pitchers.

Once part of a much feared Braves bullpen that also included Craig Kimbrel and Eric O’Flaherty, Venters hasn’t pitched a MLB inning since 2012. Since then he has had two, three, four (Holy cannoli, really?! Checks Wikipedia... ok, 3.5?) Tommy John surgeries in the hope of making it back to his once-dominant form.

He returned to the Rays on yet another minor league deal in December, so if he doesn’t make the club on Opening Day, expect to see him spend some time in the minors and maybe we’ll get a glimpse of him at the MLB level with the Durham shuttle.