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Rays expect bullpen to be championship-caliber again

ST. PETERSBURG — Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman has often said bullpens are "volatile."

To account for that, Tampa Bay has been able to successfully tweak its stock of relievers each of the past several seasons, a key to its success.

But even pitching coach Jim Hickey admits it is "unreasonable" for the Rays to expect a repeat performance from last season, when the bullpen racked up a major-league-best 2.88 ERA and closer Fernando Rodney set a record for a reliever (0.60).

"So many things have to go exactly right," Hickey said. "If I told you right now, Rodney was going to save 43 out of 49 games and have a 1.89 ERA, and that would be almost a disappointment compared to last year. They really did set the bar high.

"But I expect them to be very good, I expect them to be playoff-caliber good, and if we get into the playoffs, to take us all the way."

The late-inning core returns, with Rodney (a bargain at a $2.5 million option), RHP Joel Peralta and LHP Jake McGee. While RHP Wade Davis is gone to the Royals, RH sinkerballer Roberto Hernandez could step in if he doesn't crack the rotation. With free-agent LHP J.P. Howell and RHP Kyle Farnsworth still in the mix to return, RHP Burke Badenhop (traded to the Brewers) is the only one out of the picture.

"I'm very comfortable right now where we sit," Hickey said. "I couldn't tell you that last year, or the year before. Just because the back end of the bullpen is taken care of with Rodney and Peralta and Jake McGee. You could almost say the eighth and ninth inning are covered."

Rodney rejuvenated his career last year, improving his fastball command and delivering a historic season, which led to a fifth-place finish in the AL Cy Young voting. While Hickey said Rodney's historic stats (five earned runs in 74 2/3 innings) may not be the same, "I wouldn't be shocked if he came back out and had the same type of dominant performance."

If Howell leaves, thanks to the growing market for lefty relievers, the Rays could turn to LHP Cesar Ramos, who is out of options but came into his own last year. Hickey said he sees Ramos, a former starter, as a multiple-inning guy who, like Howell, can face both lefties and righties.

"I've got total confidence in this guy," Hickey said. "When he gets ahead of hitters, he puts them away with the best of them. … I think it's time for him, I think this is his little window of opportunity."

Friedman said they're still looking for one or two relievers, and he has a track record of acquiring quality arms for the bullpen, such as RHP Dan Wheeler in 2007, Troy Percival in 2008, Rafael Soriano and Joaquin Benoit in 2010 and Peralta and RHP Juan Cruz in 2011. If the Rays stay in-house, RHP Brandon Gomes could slide in, and whichever starter ends up out of the rotation (Hernandez, RHP Alex Cobb, RHP Chris Archer) may be an option in relief.

"We're going to be a championship caliber (bullpen)," Hickey said. "We just don't know all the pieces."

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Former slugger Hideki Matsui may be a legend in Japan, and a World Series MVP in New York, but he ended his career in Tampa Bay, announcing his retirement Thursday. … Manager Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) cracked Baseball America's list of the top 50 Twitter accounts for baseball fans, with the site writing, "great tweets from one of the most intelligent, funny and media-savvy managers." … 3B Evan Longoria and expecting girlfriend Jaime Edmondson took a "Babymoon" to Napa Valley's wine country over Christmas. … Congratulations to Rays president Matt Silverman, who will get married today in a ceremony in Austin, Texas.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@tampabay.com.

Rays expect bullpen to be championship-caliber again 12/29/12 [Last modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 7:46pm]
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