Tuesday, January 16, 2018
Tampa Bay Rays

Topkin: After stinging loss, Rays need relief and need it now

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Next?

The Rays made the arguably overdue decision to ditch Jumbo Diaz after Sunday's latest bullpen blowup, a 4-3 sweep-spoiling loss to the Angels.

The initial corresponding move is to try another newbie from their stash of Triple-A arms, summoning Andrew Kittredge, who will be the eighth pitcher to debut in the majors for them this year.

Whether Kittredge is marginally more effective than Jose Alvarado or Chih-Wei Hu or Austin Pruitt or Ryne Stanek or the others they've tried — and may keep trying, such as Diego Castillo and, when healthy, Jaime Schultz — the bigger point is that they need to do better than apprentices getting on-the-job training.

If the Rays are going to stay in a playoff race — which they seem otherwise capable of doing — the front-office execs need to put their three heads together and go get a proven reliever to bolster the bullpen.

Over the next two weeks until the trading deadline, the most important Ray may well be general manager Erik Neander.

Hunter Strickland's name was flying around Sunday because the Rays have a San Diego-based scout who was watching him pitch, and well, for the Giants at Petco Park.

Tigers lefty Justin Wilson may be even higher on the shopping list, one that likely is heavy with hard throwers who the Rays would have control of beyond this season.

The prices are steep in terms of acquisition cost, and though the Rays have indicated they'll be aggressive, they also still are going to be, as Neander said last week, "responsible." In other words, don't expect them to bid at the top of the market (like for San Diego's Brad Hand), and certainly they won't give up one of their most promising prospects for a guy who might pitch 35 innings.

But they may have to give up a little more than they want to. And they should have a little money to play with. (They also are looking for a right-handed bat.)

The Rays scout well and will have many bullpen-boosting options. But they also will have much competition, with the Nationals on Sunday snagging two of the top relievers, Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson, from the A's.

The Rays have to do something. It's obvious outside — and more important, inside — their clubhouse.

"I like the guys we have down there but … it never hurts to have extra depth," starter Chris Archer said after Sunday's game, and about as politely as one could. "We have depth on our bench. We have starting-pitching depth. And it never hurts to have depth in the bullpen as well."

They should be motivated to get it sooner rather than later, to avoid another stinging loss like Sunday's.

You can blame Diaz, who allowed the one-out hit in the eighth that started the Angels' rally after the Rays tied it 2-2, and leaves with a jumbo-size 5.70 ERA. You can blame rookie lefty Adam Kolarek, who on his first pitch, a sinker that didn't sink enough, gave up the homer to pinch-hitter C.J. Cron that won the game.

And you can blame manager Kevin Cash for making the decisions that put them in those positions and saying afterward it was "unfortunate" that things didn't work out:

Cash pulled Archer after six innings (though blame All-Star Archer, too, for throwing 107 pitches to that point and giving up five walks). He limited Tommy Hunter to one inning though he threw only eight pitches. He preferred Diaz over Erasmo Ramirez to start the eighth. He went to Kolarek knowing the Angels would likely pinch-hit a righty for lefty Luis Valbuena (but in Cash's defense, he didn't want Valbuena to face Diaz, whom he took deep Saturday.)

But also put some blame on the front office for fielding a relief crew with only three pitchers who can be trusted: Brad Boxberger (thus far, in six appearances since coming off the DL), Hunter and closer Alex Colome. There are too many high-leverage situations to get by without more options.

"We've got to be able to rely on some other guys," Cash said. "Got to have some better, more consistent options."

Ramirez is the biggest key of the experienced internal options because he has had success, more so than Chase Whitley, who has thrown well at times but more so, it seems, when the stakes are lower. After that?

And with neither Alvarado nor Kolarek showing he can handle it, finding a higher-impact, more-proven lefty seems imperative, unless the Rays are willing to risk waiting into August for Xavier Cedeno to come off the DL.

There was some good to take out of Sunday: the way Archer made pitches to get himself out of trouble; the two-run tying homer (and highlight-worthy bat flip) by Logan Morrison in the seventh; most notably, the rally in the ninth, rapping three straight hits to score a run, then a walk to load the bases before Tim Beckham grounded into a game-ending double play.

And there were other areas of frustration: the Angels scoring twice with runners somehow avoiding tags at the plate by Jesus Sucre; making three outs on the bases; Beckham swinging at the first pitch from obviously shaky Bud Norris.

The biggest concern, though, was what happened when the Rays went to the bullpen. But that's something they can address.

 
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