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Rays' revamped bullpen the key to living up to high expectations

Ten more? Twelve more? Fifteen more? Maybe-even-more more?

Go ahead. Pick a number. At this point, the expected improvement of the Rays no longer seems as if it is up for discussion. Everyone seems to agree. Yep, the Rays are going to win more games, all right.

All that remains is this question:

Exactly where are all of those extra victories going to come from?

Given the unprecedented optimism, it seems like a fair question to ask. After all, it is hard to imagine Carl Crawford being faster or Carlos Pena being stronger. True, B.J. Upton has another year under his belt, which is a fine thing, but is that enough to deliver another 15 victories?

Let's see. When you remember how unlucky he was last year, there are probably a couple of more wins in James Shields' arm. Despite the tenderness inside, you could say the same about Scott Kazmir's. Given that no other Rays starter won more than six games last year, let's hope there are at least an extra three or four in Matt Garza's.

After that, even if you toss in a couple of more wins from an improved defense and a better clubhouse, you will probably discover this: You're still short of expectations. So who is going to save the optimism around here?

Why, the bullpen, of course.

Yes, really.

If the Rays really are going to be better this year, the bullpen is the reason why. If they are going to finish higher, it is because the relievers are going to finish better.

Think of it as the greatest trade in Rays history. This time last year, the Rays had the Murdered Row of Shawn Camp, Ruddy Lugo and Brian Stokes. This year, they have traded them in for Troy Percival, Dan Wheeler and Trever Miller.

Yeah, this is better. Finally, there are professional relievers in the clubhouse. Finally, there are resumes worth trusting.

Oh, you remember. Watching last year's bullpen was like staring at a nuclear meltdown. If you watched too long, your eyes tended to ache for weeks.

There was something majestic in just how flamboyantly, historically awful last year's bullpen was. If you gathered every bad bullpen from every bad ballclub of the past half-century, last year's Rays' is the one everyone would make fun of. It was the Hit-It-Over-the-Gas-House Gang.

The ERA of 6.16? Worst in the past 50 years. The .303 batting average? Second worst. The 360 runs allowed? Fourth most.

The Rays lost six games they were leading in the ninth inning. They lost 16 they were leading in the seventh or later. They lost six times when they were leading by five runs or more. You could have handed last year's relievers winning Lotto tickets, and they would have lost those, too.

Opponents hit .368 against Camp. They hit .362 against Lugo. They hit .344 against Stokes. No lead was safe. No game was under control. Every hitter was Ty Cobb, except for the ones who were Babe Ruth.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Rays' relievers cost the team "nearly 10 wins'' over what an average bullpen would have.

Add 10 wins, more if the bullpen is above average, and yeah, the Rays are talking about real improvement. Consider last year's Cubs. They went from 66 victories in 2006 to 85 last year, largely because their pitchers' ERA went from 14th in the National League to second.

This is where improvement begins, with a few tough old cusses who have gotten a big out or two during their careers. With Percival. With Al Reyes. With Wheeler. With Miller. With players who can turn a 3-2 lead in the seventh into a victory. With players who will make a good start by Shields or Kazmir or Garza stand up. With players who have the mental toughness to bounce back after a bad outing.

Oh, there are questions to be answered. In baseball, there always are.

Percival, 38, has quickly taken over the Rays' clubhouse, but he hasn't saved a game since 2005. Can he hold up over an entire season?

Reyes, 37, was a wonderful surprise with his 26 saves last year, but only nine of them came in the team's final 90 games. Will he fit as the setup man?

Wheeler, 30, is coming off a less-than-stellar season in which he was 1-9 with a 5.30 ERA. His strikeouts were still high, which tells you his arm is still there, but can he return to his form of 2005 and 2006?

Miller, 34, had his highest ERA in five seasons last year. Was it a fluke?

All of that said, this is a better bet.

Let's face it: Last year's bullpen never had a chance. Are you really going to depend on Camp to get out Alex Rodriguez? On Stokes to get out Manny Ramirez? On Lugo to get out, well, anybody? The Rays went into opening day last year with only $3.3-million in their bullpen, and a few days later, it was clear that they had overspent.

This year, the payroll for the bullpen has increased to somewhere around $12.7-million. Yes, there are professional pitchers. Yes, they can be expected to get out professional hitters.

Given the hope it provides, the victories they can make possible, it sounds like a bargain.

No relief

The Rays' bullpen last season was among the worst in the majors in virtually every statistical category. Some key numbers:

Total 6.16 360 605 77 .303 .875
ML rank 30th 30th 30th 30th 30th 30th

Rays' revamped bullpen the key to living up to high expectations 03/25/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 28, 2008 2:02pm]
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