For the past two seasons, the Rays knew the ninth inning meant RHP Fernando Rodney was coming in with his hat titled to the side and — they hoped — celebrating by shooting his post-save imaginary arrow.
But with Rodney still a free agent, Tampa Bay will enter spring training, and potentially the beginning of the season, without an anointed closer. They have options, including veteran RHPs Heath Bell, Joel Peralta and Juan Carlos-Oviedo, along with LHPs Jake McGee and Alex Torres.
Though the Rays may start the season in a matchup-based closer by committee, pitching coach Jim Hickey believes one will eventually emerge.
"The last couple of seasons, we had the ninth-inning guy, and that's what everyone would prefer. I know I would prefer that," Hickey said. "That will probably end up being the case this year, although it may not be clear for at least a few weeks into the season.
"Whether it's Heath Bell, Peralta, Jake McGee … Alex Torres might end up being the guy. The thing I'm very comfortable with is that we have four or five guys we trust late in the game when the game is on the line. It's a pretty good situation overall."
Hickey pointed out that two years ago, Rodney wasn't supposed to be the closer heading into his historic season; he took over after incumbent Kyle Farnsworth hurt his right (pitching) elbow in spring training. Hickey said he'd prefer not to have a closer competition in spring training but rather have relievers focused on getting their work in.
Bell, 36, enters with the most pedigree, having been one of the game's best closers from 2009-11 (132 saves in 146 chances) before two down years. When acquired in December in a three-team deal with the Diamondbacks and Reds, Bell said he believed he could reclaim his form and win the job.
The Rays have invested the most in Bell, picking up $5.5 million of his 2014 salary. But Peralta has been a valuable setup man, and Carlos-Oviedo had 92 saves with the Marlins before spending last year recovering from Tommy John elbow-ligament surgery.
Hickey, who has overseen a few reliever reclamations (see: Rodney, Farnsworth, RHP Joaquin Benoit), said the keys are confidence and putting Bell in situations in which he can be successful and "build some mojo from there."
"The biggest question for me about a ninth-inning guy is can he handle it mentally? Can he handle it intestinally?" Hickey said. "And the fact (Bell) has been there, done that for a number of years answers that, as it did with Fernando. You know he's capable of doing that; he's not going to be afraid of the moment."
RAYS RUMBLINGS: Longtime Rays TV reporter Todd Kalas said he was flattered to be linked last week to the Phillies' broadcast openings and was expecting the speculation considering his late father, Harry, was a Hall of Fame broadcaster in Philadelphia. But Kalas doesn't think anything will come of it because the Phillies are looking for a color analyst, not a play-by-play guy. … Ex-Ray Fred McGriff's Hall of Fame support continued to drop this year, to 11.7 percent (67 votes) from 20.7 percent in 2013 and 23.9 in 2012. … While former first-round draft pick OF Josh Sale will be at this week's development camp, he's still suspended and on the restricted list. … Ex-Yankees utility INF Jayson Nix, signed Thursday to a minor-league deal, could end up filling the role vacated by Kelly Johnson. … The Rays' first pitcher and catcher workout will be Feb. 15, the first full squad Feb. 20. … OF Matt Joyce will hold his annual youth baseball camp Jan. 26 at the North Brandon Baseball Complex. Register at nbyb.biz. … Congrats to the Tampa Bay Times' Marc Topkin and the Rays' Dewayne Staats for their National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association awards.