Without a doubt, the Tampa Rays have been the biggest surprise in all of baseball. Despite having a only a minuscule $43 million dollar payroll, the Rays have remained in first place since the beginning of May even with the Red Sox and Yankees in their division. To put this simply, Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez make more than the entire Rays team combined while Julio Lugo, JD Drew, and David Ortiz combine to equal the entire salary of the Rays. So how have the Rays done it? Through the bullpen. True the starters have been great, but the Rays real strength lies in the amount of quality arms they can choose at the end of the game. With a young team, it is so important to have a good bullpen that doesn't blow late leads to ensure the positive moral of the team. Give Rays management all the credit: they have made some masterful decisions that have given Rays fans (however many exist) a great regular season. But will they hold up down the stretch and into the playoffs? We shall see.
Troy Percival: Percival has not been bad this season, but they problem has been that he cannot stay healthy. He can be pretty darn good at the back end of the pen, but he's been on the DL three times already. Furthermore, Percival proved in 2002 that he can pitch well when it matters most when he was a stalwart at the back end of the Angels bullpen
TRUSTED (but I don't trust his health)
Dan Wheeler: Wheeler is already a Jorge Says No! favorite. He has been amazing this season as both a set up man and closer for Troy Percival. Perhaps the only concerning stat is that Wheeler's ERA has been on the rise since June and the Rays will need him to reverse that trend if they are to hold on to the division lead.
JP Howell: Where did this guy come from? He was flat out awful for the last 3 years as a starter, but the Rays moved him to the pen this season and he has been fantastic. Howell is a rare power lefty out of the pen (79 K in 76 innings) who gets out both lefties and righties (2.03 against lefties, 2.90 against righties). This guy could be absolutely lethal in the playoffs.
Grant Balfour: Where did this guy come from (part 2)? Think about this, any team could have had Balfour this season for 50 grand when Balfour was designated for assignment this spring. Every team in baseball wishes they could have gotten their hands on Balfour now. What a season he has had. This guy throws 95 mph and has a 1.38 ERA this season. Balfour has struck out 67 hitters in only 45 innings. How dominant is that? Well see if he can keep it up this season, but there have been no signs of Balfour slowing down.
Chad Bradford: Probably my favorite relief pitcher of all time. During the 2006 NLCS, there was no one else that I wanted on the mound against a righty than Bradford. Bradford was phenomenal. He is the ideal situational righty for the Rays. He will shut down Guerrero, Hunter, Quentin, and Bay in the late innings. But please Mr. Maddon, don't use him against a tough lefty.
TRUSTED (against righties)
Trevor Miller: Miller is dominant against lefties, but a liability against righties. If used correctly (ONLY LEFTIES) then he will perform well.
TRUSTED (against lefties)
When it comes to the late innings, no team has a better bullpen than the Rays do. I see no possible way that the Rays falter down the stretch and I am excited to see how they perform in the playoffs.
And by the way, does anyone have better glasses in baseball than Joe Maddon? I love his specs.