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Tampa Bay Rays face a major challenge rebuilding their bullpen

PHILADELPHIA — The challenge of rebuilding the bullpen for 2011 seems enormous.

"Critically important," Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman said Friday. "We have an unprecedented number of bullpen guys filing for free agency going into the offseason. On top of the uncertainty that comes with relievers anyway, we have the added challenge of adding a number of arms, whether it be some from our previous bullpen or some from other organizations."

Seven relievers who pitched key innings for the Rays in 2010 could be free agents if Dan Wheeler's option is declined and Lance Cormier nontendered. Closer Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate and Chad Qualls are already eligible.

The only set returnees are Andy Sonnanstine, Jake McGee (whom they see as a future closer, but not to start next season) and surgically repaired J.P. Howell (with questions of when he'll be ready and how much he can do).

The reduction of payroll makes it unlikely they'll be in the market to sign or acquire any big-name replacements to come up with the three-four "even or ahead guys" whom manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey consider so vital to their success.

But that doesn't mean all — or even most — will be lost. The Rays have been extremely good and somewhat fortunate in filling big bullpen holes with seemingly small moves.

Howell was moved to the pen after failing as a starter. Balfour was acquired in trade for a bit part, Seth McClung. Choate was first signed to a minor-league deal. Benoit the same, as he was coming off surgery and missed all of 2009.

With exclusive rights to their own potential free agents until five days after the World Series, the Rays will likely explore bringing a few back. How much, and how long of a deal, Benoit wants could be the most interesting conversation.

OUR BAD: So the way Texas manager Ron Washington tells it, the Rangers wanted to play the Rays in the first round because of the lack of media coverage the series would get.

"I didn't want my guys for their first playoff experience going into Yankee Stadium. I'm not saying it would've been too much, but it could've been," he told ESPN.com's Howard Bryant.

"When we went to Tampa, there were like three people in the interview room. On the field, it was empty. That allowed our guys to ease into it, to get the feel. After that, I knew we were ready."

HONORARIUM: RHP Wade Davis is a finalist for the Players Choice AL outstanding rookie award to be announced Tuesday and LHP David Price for the AL outstanding pitcher award coming Thursday. … Soriano is one of six finalists for the MLB clutch performer award, with voting on mlb.com. He also was named AL reliever of the year by the Sporting News.

RAYS RUMBLINGS: Former big-leaguer Neil Allen, pitching coach at Class A Charlotte in 2010 and Double-A Montgomery the three years before that, is headed to Triple-A Durham. … Plastic wristbands like those worn by Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza in support of a local boy featured in a recent Gary Shelton column are now being sold by Pinellas Lighthouse for the Blind; see lighthouseofpinellas.org. … Expect the Tigers to join the Angels and Red Sox in going hard after LF Carl Crawford, and don't figure on much interest from the Yankees. … Several plusses for the Rays in the Blue Jays' hiring John Farrell as their manager: He has never managed and pitching coaches typically don't do well, the Red Sox will miss him a lot, and the Rays keep aspiring manager Dave Martinez as their bench coach, at least for now.

Tampa Bay Rays face a major challenge rebuilding their bullpen 10/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, October 23, 2010 9:08pm]
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