Hide All Sharp Objects

The Rays bullpen was an epic disaster in 2007 – one of the worst in the past 50 years of baseball at that time. Conversely, the bullpen was arguably the most consistent part of the 2010 American League East champions’ roster. Unfortunately, most of the key cogs to that bullpen could be wearing different uniforms in 2011 and there is a very good chance that when the season kicks off in April, only one familiar face could still be in the bullpen.

Here are the members from the 2010 bullpen and their current off-season status:

  • Andy Sonnanstine – likely to be retained via arbitration
  • Rafael Soriano  – Type A free agent heading toward a bigger payday elsewhere
  • Lance Cormier – could possibly be non-tendered thus becoming a free agent
  • Joaquin Benoit – Type B free agent who will be highly sought after
  • Grant Balfour – Type A free agent; made $2.1m in 2010
  • Dan Wheeler – Type A free agent; made $3.5m in 2010. $4.0m option for 2011 was declined
  • Randy Choate – Type B free agent
  • Jeremy Hellickson – will be retained
  • Chad Qualls – Type B free agent; made $4.2m in 2010
  • Mike Ekstrom – will be retained
  • Jake McGee – will be retained
  • Dale Thayer – dropped from the 40 man roster

The Type A free agents are the important ones – if the Rays offer them arbitration and the pitcher declines, the Rays are guaranteed compensatory draft picks from whatever club signs that pitcher as well as one from MLB. The Rays will most certainly offer both Soriano and Balfour arbitration by the November 23rd due date but that decision has likely not been made for Dan Wheeler.  Wheeler’s arbitration figure is likely to come in at a higher amount than the option the Rays have already declined and it is unlikely any club will be willing to give up a draft pick to sign Wheeler who is essentially a right-handed specialist. Soriano and Balfour would have a week to decide whether to accept the Rays’ offer or decline it and become free agents to negotiate a new deal.

For the Type B free agents, the Rays want to offer arbitration to both Benoit and Choate as they are in demand according to reports this week. That would guarantee the Rays a compensatory pick should the Rays not be able to retain either or both pitchers. Chad Qualls is likely to be non-tendered because the Rays would run the risk of him accepting the arbitration offer and thus be on the hook to pay him close to $6.0m.

It is crystal clear Soriano has thrown his last pitch as a member of the Rays organization so he can be taken off the list. Let’s also assume that Balfour, Benoit and Choate’s demands exceed what the Rays are willing to spend and they also find new homes this off-season.  Lastly,  assume Cormier, Qualls, and Wheeler are not offered arbitration thus making them all true free agents. That leaves the Rays bullpen with:

  1. Sonnanstine
  2. Hellickson
  3. Ekstrom
  4. McGee
  5. Howell
  6. Bush

It is unlikely the Rays are going to want to put Hellickson in the bullpen for the 2011 season because of his top prospect status. The Rangers did this with Neftali Feliz but they are already talking about putting him back in the rotation because arms like Feliz and Hellickson belong in a rotation. Assuming that, Hellickson is almost certain to begin 2011 in Durham unless the Rays trade either Matt Garza or James Shields. J.P. Howell is no lock to be 100% healthy by opening day and could very well begin the season on the disabled list. Additionally, the Rays may also decide to put McGee back in AAA until June to delay his service time clock and buy another year out of the talented lefty.  Matt Bush was recently added to the 40 man roster but has just a handful of innings at the A ball level as he converts from a position player to a pitcher with a very live arm so he will almost assuredly begin 2011 in the minors. If all of those things happen, the Rays are left with just Sonnanstine and Ekstrom returning to the bullpen to start the season.

Scary,  huh?

There is a chance the Rays can retain one of Balfour or Benoit by offering a long-term deal, but both have an injury-riddled past which makes that a risky proposition. They could also take their chances with Wheeler enjoying his life in the bay area and the strong family ties with Staats in the broadcast booth and that he comes back for 2011 at an affordable rate. If not, the Rays are faced with the task of revamping one of the league’s best bullpens, nearly from scratch. The Marlins are already doing this and have acquired four relievers in the past few days by dealing away both Cameron Maybin, Andrew Miller, and Dan Uggla.  If the Rays are not able to address the bullpen via trade(s), here are some names on the open market and what they made in 2010:

  • Jesse Crain ($2.0m – Type B free agent)
  • Juan Cruz ($3.3m – coming off injury)
  • Octavio Dotel ($3.3m – Type B free agent)
  • Scott Downs ($4.0m – Type A free agent)
  • Kyle Farnsworth (4.5m)
  • Frank Francisco ($3.3m – Type A free agent)
  • Jason Frasor ($2.7m – Type A free agent)
  • Brian Fuentes ($9.0m – Type B free agent)
  • Kevin Gregg ($2.0m – Type B free agent)
  • Chan Ho Park ($1.2m)
  • J.J. Putz ($3.0m – Type B free agent)
  • Kerry Wood ($10.5m – Type B free agent)

The Rays have never signed a Type A free agent with Andrew Friedman at the helm because the club properly understands the value of draft picks and would not give up a first round draft pick to sign a free agent relief pitcher. A larger budget club will have that luxury with Soriano, but the Rays would be foolish to give up a first round draft pick for any one of those Type A free agents.  The good news is that the major league and minor league free agent relief pool is quite deep so the Rays have a lot of options to explore. Hanselman has suggested trading Jason Bartlett for Jim Johnson while R.J. Anderson and Tommy Rancel have speculated on a few other relief acquisition such as Juan Cruz, Chris Sampson, and Fernando Cabrera over at TheProcessReport.

While the Rays have been rather quiet at the past three trade deadlines, they will be anything but quiet in the coming weeks of the 2010 off-season. They have some critical decisions to make related to the personnel in the bullpen as they potentially line up a new set of faces when opening day lineups are introduced this coming April.

About Jason Collette

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