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Balfour brings clarity to Rays bullpen

ST. PETERSBURG — Manager Joe Maddon has been trying hard not to think too much about the coming Rays season, spending much of the last month relaxing and reading at his South Tampa home. For the past week, he has plotted and planned for his first Gasparilla experience today.

"I've been overboogieing right now on the prep work," he said. "Hopefully, I'll be a good host."

But with Thursday's unexpected signing of All-Star closer Grant Balfour to a two-year, $12 million contract, Maddon couldn't help pondering the possibilities of what looks to be an impressively talented relief corps.

"To have Grant back on board, being part of this, put yourself in my seat, game in progress, what can happen," Maddon said. "We're going to have a really deep bullpen. I'm looking at the names, it's really exciting."

They'll now end games with Balfour, who left the Rays in 2011 for Oakland and evolved into one of the game's top closers. He has a 92.5 save percentage (62 of 67) over the past two seasons, which ranks fourth-best in the majors.

And with Balfour at the back end, those who come before him should be even better.

The two pitchers who had closing experience and seemed in line to vie for the vacancy — Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez) — now can be used in earlier, lower-leverage situations, joining Joel Peralta and left-hander Jake McGee to form a solid setup crew.

With Alex Torres traded to San Diego, lefty Cesar Ramos seems set for the sixth spot, providing another option against left-handed hitters and the ability to work multiple innings.

That leaves one spot open going into camp, with returnees Brandon Gomes and Josh Lueke, acquired-from-San Diego Brad Boxberger and nonroster invitee Mark Lowe the leading candidates.

"Theoretically, it's really outstanding," Maddon said. "Keeping them well, spreading out the work, not overabusing anybody, I think, is important. But the names are about as good of a stack of names as we've had."

Bell, 36, acquired from Arizona in the three-way deal that also netted catcher Ryan Hanigan, is hoping to regain the form that made him one of the game's top closers in 2009-11 with San Diego. He said he is confident personal and mechanical issues are behind him, and that with a new start in a new league, he could regain his past form.

Oviedo, 31, returns to the Rays after sitting out 2013 recovering from elbow-ligament replacement surgery. He had success for the Marlins from 2009 to 2011. After missing the 2012 season because of legal and disciplinary issues stemming from age and identity fraud, he, too, was to be considered for closing duty.

Peralta and McGee have been something of a dynamic duo. Peralta, 37, is back for his fourth season, having made a majors-leading 80 appearances in 2013 and posting a record 41 holds with a 3.41 ERA. McGee, 27, came on strong after a rough first month, allowing a 2.31 ERA and .186 opponents average over his final 56 appearances, 44 of which were scoreless.

Still, there will be concerns, as there are with any bullpen any year. Balfour is 36 and a max-effort guy the Orioles decided not to sign based on his physical exam. Neither Bell nor Oviedo has done much the past two seasons. Peralta has been used heavily, a majors-most 227 appearances over the past three seasons. McGee has yet to develop a strong secondary pitch to his fastball.

Principal owner Stuart Sternberg said if he had trouble sleeping, relievers would be the reason.

"Bullpens, in a way, are unforeseen," he said. "You'll have a team that has the best bullpen in the league one year, and then the next year, they can't get an out.

"So that's the kind of thing where we try to do as much as we can, and the mixing and matching and the different looks that Joe is able to create. … You just don't know (how it will work out), but you try to put as much in there as you can and then really close your eyes and see how it develops."

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View a gallery of photos of the Rays' offseason acquisitions at tampabay.com/blogs/rays.

Balfour brings clarity to Rays bullpen 01/24/14 [Last modified: Friday, January 24, 2014 11:03pm]

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