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Tampa Bay Rays piecing together a bullpen

PORT CHARLOTTE

Kyle Farnsworth? Joel Peralta? Adam Russell? Who are these guys? And why is it up to them to save a season? There are strangers in charge of a familiar finish. There are unknowns who must close the door. They are the replacements, and it is their arms that must make up a rebuilt, retooled and reloaded bullpen for the Tampa Bay Rays. Cory Wade? Cesar Ramos? Juan Cruz? They walk across the infield, and you do not know their faces, and they do not know each other's, and no one — not even those in charge — knows just how they will fit together. They know only that they must. For now, they might as well wear question marks on their jerseys and Rubik's cubes on their caps. No one knows who they are or how they will pitch or when they will pitch or in what order they will pitch. For now, all that is known is that, as a group, they hold the season by the seams.

Dane De La Rosa? Dirk Hayhurst? Rob Delaney?

Can anybody here close out a game? Or, for that matter, a threat?

If any group of fans knows the importance of a bullpen, it should be that of the Rays. Last season the Rays pieced together a vagabond here and a reclamation project there and a castoff over there, and they turned them into the hidden strength of a team that won the most games in the American League. Rafael Soriano, unwanted by the Braves, turned into a solid closer. Joaquin Benoit, an injury risk when he came, owned the eighth. And with the final two innings wrapped up, Grant Balfour and Randy Choate fit in perfectly as the bridge from the strong rotation to the strong finish.

All together, they were first in the American League in ERA (3.33), first in opponents' batting average (.228), first in save percentage (76.1) and first in fewest base runners per nine innings (10.86). The Rays outscored opponents 174-97 in the eighth and ninth innings.

And then it all went boom, and the Rays' relievers scattered across baseball. Now the Rays must find seven more players with which to construct a bullpen.

How important is the bullpen? Consider this exchange with Rays manager Joe Maddon:

Joe, if the bullpen comes together, can the Rays win 90 games? "Yes."

Joe, if the bullpen doesn't come together, can the Rays lose 80? "Yes."

And there you have it, the difference between mediocrity and legitimacy. With a solid bullpen, the Rays might make a run at the playoffs. And without one, they might make a run at fourth place. Simple as that.

"You don't go anywhere without a significant bullpen," Maddon said. "You can't achieve 90-plus wins without a good bullpen."

The problem is that the Rays don't merely have to replace a reliever. Pretty much they have to replace all of them. Andy Sonnanstine is back, but otherwise, the bullpen is a stack of scouting reports and audition tapes. Think of the bats across the American League East, think of the pressure that increases during the final three outs of most games, and you get some idea of the urgency of finding out who can do what and when.

It would help, of course, if the Rays could build backward, if they could anoint a closer and then let the other pitchers find their roles. If the Rays had the right closer, it would be easy to imagine Farnsworth as Benoit, and Peralta as Balfour, and Russell as Dan Wheeler. It would be easy to think of Ramos as Choate, and Wade as Lance Cormier, and Sonnanstine as, well, Sonnanstine. All the Rays need is someone to give away a closer cheap.

Alas, that isn't likely to happen. The Rays are likely back to that frustrating close-by-committee approach when they designate two or three pitchers in charge of getting the big outs in the big innings.

So who are those guys likely to be?

For now, start with Farnsworth, who pitched in 60 games last year and had a 3.34 ERA. Alas, he didn't record a save all year. Then there is Peralta, who pitched in 39 games for the Nationals with a 2.02 ERA. Again, however, not a save. In fact, the only player on the Rays' spring roster who had a major-league save last year was Sonnanstine, who had one.

By now you are probably thinking of Jake McGee, who some believe has the stuff to grow into a closer. That isn't likely to happen, especially not early. The Rays are an ease-him-in organization, remember, and they aren't likely to throw a rookie into the fire.

So where does that the leave the Rays? It leaves them looking at all 31 pitchers in their camp, and at the rosters of the other 31 teams. There is still a possibility that a key member of this bullpen might not even be here.

"We have some big upside arms," Maddon said. "There is a lot of physical talent here. But we have to get to know them, to know what's in their chests."

Do the Rays have the necessary pieces to put a successful bullpen together?

Put it this way: If the season is worth saving, they had better.

Tampa Bay Rays piecing together a bullpen 02/18/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 19, 2011 3:43pm]
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