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Balfour may be Rays' biggest bargain

NEW YORK — Here, in the land of $275-million third basemen and $189-million shortstops, it seems appropriate to tell the story of how the Rays may buy themselves a pennant for $175,000.

Technically, that's an exaggeration. The Rays obviously have spent tens of millions on their 2008 payroll, and plenty more on player development over the years. But a $175,000 minor-league contract helped turn Tampa Bay's bullpen from a major embarrassment into one of the American League's best.

To understand, you have to go back to spring training and a seemingly inconsequential battle for what may have been the 25th spot on the roster. The final job in the bullpen was going to either Scott Dohmann or Grant Balfour, and neither man had minor-league options remaining. That meant whoever did not get the job was either going to be lost on waivers or be eligible for free agency.

Both pitchers were 30, and both had spent the majority of their careers in the minors. Balfour had the better spring numbers, but the Rays were leery of his ability to consistently throw strikes. So Dohmann got the job, and Balfour was designated for assignment.

"At the time they let me go, I figured I wasn't that important to them," Balfour said. "If there was an opportunity for me to go and pitch in the big leagues, if somebody picked me up or if I could sign with a big-league team, then I was going to do it."

Executive vice president Andrew Friedman had called around to gauge trade interest but found no takers. Balfour was put on waivers and ignored by 29 other teams, which meant he could file for free agency.

This is the point where Tampa Bay's investment strategy paid off. Balfour had been signed to a split contract, meaning he would make $500,000 in the big leagues and $175,000 in the minors.

A typical Triple-A player makes closer to $4,000 a month, and a veteran might pull in $8,000-$10,000 a month. So, in essence, the Rays were willing to overpay Balfour to entice him to stay in the system.

"In the baseball world, that's obviously not a lot," Balfour said. "But in the real world, that's good money."

Balfour was nearly unhittable in Triple A (0.38 ERA and 39 strikeouts in 232/3 innings) and was recalled by Tampa Bay when Troy Percival went on the disabled list on May 29.

What followed is one of the most dominating summers ever seen in a big-league bullpen. No reliever in MLB history has averaged more than 12 strikeouts per nine innings while keeping his ERA under 2.00 and throwing at least 50 innings, as Balfour has done in his abbreviated season.

"That's a good feeling to know that no one took a chance on me and now maybe they're looking at my numbers and seeing some of the better numbers of any reliever in the game," Balfour said. "It kind of makes me smile because I did work hard to get back here."

How did this happen? Was every general manager wrong? Did Balfour become a different pitcher? Or is this a one-summer fluke?

Naturally, there is no single answer. For instance, timing was a factor in Tampa Bay's good fortune. Because Balfour was dropped at the end of spring training, most teams had just finalized their rosters and weren't looking to make moves. And, let's face it, there was no reason to expect Balfour to have a breakout season.

He had spent parts of nine seasons in the minors and missed almost two full seasons with major elbow and shoulder surgeries. His major-league numbers before 2008 included a 5.44 ERA, no saves and 5.63 walks per nine innings.

Balfour has always been able to throw in the mid 90s, but his command of pitches, in and out of the strike zone, has often been too spotty. At Durham this season, he significantly reduced his walks, and his strikeouts soared.

"I just think it was confidence," Friedman said. "He's always had the stuff, and he's had success in the past. He's had to come back from injuries, which can be trying mentally.

"For him to go down to Triple A and dominate and get that feeling that 'I am a major-league pitcher, and I know it in no uncertain terms' has helped him greatly."

Balfour's control has improved so much, he is essentially thriving with one pitch. He throws 95- and 96-mph fastballs as much as 80 percent of the time, showing his breaking pitches only occasionally.

Yet Balfour is locating the fastballs well enough that he is averaging 12.96 strikeouts per nine innings, better than high-octane — and high-salaried — closers such as Brad Lidge ($6.35-million), Kerry Wood ($4.2-million) and Francisco Rodriguez ($10-million).

Balfour may not have cashed in yet, but the Rays certainly have.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Balfour may be Rays' biggest bargain 09/14/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 18, 2008 8:53pm]
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