ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays bullpen still isn't anywhere near last season's form, but it is starting to shape up.
Hard-throwing veteran right-hander Kyle Farnsworth is close to finalizing a deal to join the mix, free agent Grant Balfour is considering re-signing and lefty J.P. Howell's recovery from shoulder surgery has him on track for a late April/early May return.
Farnsworth, 34, would bring velocity, with a 95-mph fastball, and a certain toughness, voted last year in an ESPN The Magazine poll as the big-leaguer others would least like to fight after being involved in several brawls.
He was 3-2 with a 3.34 ERA in 60 games last season for the Royals and Braves and has done most of his work during a 12-season major-league career in middle relief, posting a 34-55 record, 4.39 ERA and 27 saves in 713 appearances. He also has some experience in the AL East, going 6-9 with seven saves and a 4.33 ERA for the Yankees from 2006-08.
Neither the Rays nor Farns-worth's agent would confirm the deal, meaning it is likely pending a physical exam or final paperwork. Farnsworth will get a $3.25 million salary, according to ESPN's Buster Olney, which would make him the fourth highest paid player among the 2011 Rays, and has a 2012 option that could push the total value to $6 million.
Balfour declined arbitration from the Rays in search of a big-dollar deal such as the $16.5 million over three years former teammate Joaquin Benoit got from Detroit.
But with a Type A designation requiring a signing team to forfeit its first-round draft pick, Balfour hasn't found the free-agent market as robust. Instead Balfour, who made $2.05 million last season while posting a 2.28 ERA in 57 games, could return to the Rays on a one-year deal, with the promise he wouldn't be offered arbitration after the season so he could be a free agent again but with no compensation.
Howell said he has had no setbacks in recovery from the May 23 surgery to repair his torn labrum, had added 25-30 pounds of muscle and feels "great," better than he did before the surgery. He will participate in spring training, though with a reduced workload, and is on a timetable to rejoin the Rays after a short rehab stint in the minors at the request of team officials.
"If it was up to me, I'd be with them out of the gates, and I feel like I can," Howell said. "But they've done this rodeo before, and I haven't, so they're kind of holding my hand a little bit. … I think me being healthy and pushy, I think late April, and if they want to get their way, I think mid May."
Freed gets new deal
Radio broadcaster Andy Freed agreed to a new three-year contract that will keep him in the Rays booth through at least 2013. Partner Dave Wills is signed only through this season but wants to stay long-term, and an extension is possible.
"I don't really want to be anywhere else," Freed said. "I really respect what the Rays are doing as a franchise, and I love being around it. I love working with Dave, I love talking to Joe Maddon every day, I love living here. There's really nothing about this job I don't love, and I hope to be here a long time."
Freed and Wills have been calling the games since 2005.
• The Rays are scheduled for one date on ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball, July 17 at home vs. Boston, as the first half of the schedule was released.
• Twenty-five prospects, including top 2008 pick Tim Beckham and 2010 pick Josh Sale, worked out at Tropicana Field as part of the winter development program, which concludes today.
Marc Topkin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.