Tuesday, February 3, 2009

2009 Rays Bullpen: A Must Watch

While it might be difficult to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox on a $50-$60 million dollar payroll, the Rays continue to establish themselves as strong contenders in the AL East. While the Rays will never be able to make the splashy signings like the Yanks or Sox, the Rays have made some quiet yet productive signings that will make this team a contender to win it all in 2009.

Even though the Rays had a dynamite bullpen in 2008, GM Andrew Friedman has taken aggressive measures in upgrading the bullpen with more quality arms.

Friedman's first target was RHP Joe Nelson, who was coming off a career year with the Marlins in 2008. Even though Nelson put up a 2.00 ERA, the Marlins did not offer Nelson a contract for 2009 fearing that he would receive too much of a raise. Because of the Marlins cheap ways, the Rays were able to swoop in and sign Nelson to a very club friendly one year deal worth just over $1 million.

Next, Friedman needed to find a left handed specialist to replace the departed Trever Miller. Friedman targeted LHP submariner Brian Shouse, who delivered a 2.81 ERA in 2008 and held left handed hitters to an .180 BAA. The Rays signed the 40 year old Shouse to either a one year deal with an option or a two year deal (depending on who you read).

These two moves make the Rays bullpen look fantastic on paper. Just look at the ridiculous amount of options manager Joe Maddon has late in games:

Percival (if healthy)

Now, there are two reasons why this bullpen will be the bullpen to watch in 2009.

1. Two submarines
-If you haven't noticed, the Rays now have two of the best submarine specialists that baseball has to offer. In Chad Bradford and Brian Shouse, the Rays have two of the most entertaining players in baseball to watch. Trust me, I spent a year marveling in Chad Bradford wondering how in right hand did not hit the mound and how any right handed hitter could make contact off of him.

And Rays fans get both Bradford and Shouse...I'm jealous.

By my count, there are less than twenty submarine pitchers in baseball right now, and amazingly, the Rays have two of the best in their bullpen. This will be highly entertaining for Rays fans, and absolutely awful for opposing hitters. (Shouse destroys left handed hitters, while Bradford is still very, very good against right handed hitters)

The thought of watching Joe Maddon bring in Shouse to face Johnny Damon and then bringing in Bradford to face Derek Jeter is exhilarating. Honestly, the match ups Joe Maddon will have at his disposal will be endless and make the Rays a much deeper team.

2. Who the Closer?
-If he is healthy, I can say with some level of certainty that Troy Percival will be their closer in 2009. However, there is no guarantee that Percival will be able to stay healthy. He was on the DL three times in 2008 and was unable to pitch in the playoffs because of his injuries.

And plus, even if Percival is healthy, there is no guarantee that he will be effective. While he was quite good in the first half (3.54 ERA), his second half was awful as he dealt with injuries and inconsistency (6.63 ERA).

I know that personally, I would love to see a Bradford/Shouse duo close out games for the Rays in '09. But the odds of that happening are unfortunately long...so Dan Wheeler or Grant Balfour will probably have to do.

So I look at this bullpen and I can't help but ponder what it would like with a dominant closer to shut the door in the ninth. They have so many good middle relief pitchers, but right now, the ninth inning looks like a weakness for the Rays. If the Rays can find a quality closer, then I really think that this bullpen can propel the Rays a top the AL East and into title contention.

The bullpen could be...that good.

This bullpen should be the biggest strength the Rays have in 2009. Their rotation will be solid, their offense will be very good, but the bullpen will determine how far this team goes in the AL East. The Rays have a ridiculous amount of depth and quality in the bullpen and I'm confident (even without a definite closer yet) that the Rays will be serious competitors in the AL East.

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