With the end of the World Series, free agents are now officially free, which means it’s time for us to furiously speculate over potential targets for the Tampa Bay Rays. While others will excitedly point to re-signing Avisail Garcia or going after guys like Yasiel Puig or Cole Hamels, I’d like to offer a more below-the-radar suggestion: left-handed reliever Blaine Hardy.
Hardy, recently outrighted from the Detroit Tigers, is a 32-year-old reliever who has had success both in the bullpen and even as a spot starter for the Tigers. With his history of being role-flexible, he’s the ideal candidate for a bullpen that is not as structurally rigid as many others.
Hardy’s most interesting year in his six-season career with the Tigers was 2018. He appeared in 30 games, starting 13, netting a 4-5 record (on a 98-loss team), with a 3.56 ERA, 3.97 FIP, and 1.17 WHIP. His numbers in 2019 weren’t as good, as he struggled with injury, ending the season with a 4.47 ERA but an elevated 5.72 FIP. While the numbers from last season aren’t the most inspiring, they don’t do justice to a player the Tigers didn’t ever seem to utilize quite right.
The Rays have a habit of taking pitchers from other franchises and using a different approach with them to net incredible results. The turnaround of players like Tyler Glasnow under pitching coach Kyle Snyder’s guidance have been nothing short of remarkable, and on a team that relies so heavily on its bullpen, and its unique use of relievers, an underrated free agent like Blaine Hardy could thrive.
Hardy is not a one-trick pony — he’s a reliever with a three-pitch repertoire, who in 2019 actually introduced a new pitch. As a pitcher, he previously relied heavily on his slider, which averaged about 84 mph. In 2019 he moved to an 86 mph cutter, something he had never previously thrown before. He also throws a unique vulcan-grip cutter that sits in the mid-to-high-70s, they makes up about 20% of his pitches. In 2019 his slider almost vanished from his repertoire and he focused more on a combo of his high-80s fastball and his changeup.
A pitcher with that much versatility, who has been able to develop both a new grip and a new pitch late in his career, is someone who is open to learning what a new pitching coach can teach him, and bullpen coach Stan Boroski could really help elevate the raw skills Hardy has to offer. Plus, as a spot starter, Hardy has demonstrated an ability to go multiple innings throughout a season, making him a strong candidate to pick up the middle innings following an opener.
The Rays are a team that likes to think outside the box and to use their bullpen in unique and unexpected ways. A long-inning lefty with four pitches (and an infrequently used fifth in his sinker) could be a huge asset to that kind of smart-thinking bullpen.
Hardy might not be a big-name free agent, but it means the Rays could likely take an inexpensive risk on him and see what he has to offer. With the changes to the reliever rules in 2020 — all relievers will need to face a minimum of three batters — a LOOGY is no longer valuable to a bullpen, but having a skilled left-handed pitcher in the bullpen would be a serious boon to the club.