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Tampa Bay Rays to start with closer-by-committee

ST. PETERSBURG — What the Rays have after completing the historically massive reconstruction of their bullpen is a group that will be diversified and complementary in styles and looks, short on late-inning experience and success, rich in upside and potential and, they feel, at least above league average.

What they don't have — and won't for the foreseeable future — is a closer or even a set plan on which of the seven they will use to get the final outs.

"It's much more about having enough high-leverage guys that can get big outs late in the game," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said, "whether that's the seventh inning or the eighth inning or the ninth inning."

They'll do it that way because they feel it's more important to get the biggest outs at the key moments rather than save relievers for pre-assigned situations that could be rendered irrelevant.

But also because they obviously don't feel — at least at this point — they have the one reliever to handle the closer's role the way since-departed (and significantly richer) Rafael Soriano did so well last season.

"I'm not going to declare one," manager Joe Maddon said, "because I think if you are not absolutely certain, then you shouldn't do that because you're only setting yourself up for problems later on."

Of the group the Rays do have — which was solidified Wednesday with confirmation that right-hander Juan Cruz and lefties Jake McGee and Cesar Ramos got the final spots — Kyle Farns­worth and Joel Peralta have the most late-inning experience.

Farnsworth has 27 big-league saves though only one since 2006 and a success rate of less than 45 percent. Peralta has only two saves in the majors but 106 in the minors with four seasons of 20 or more, including last year for Triple-A Syracuse.

Cruz has had only 14 save chances (and three saves) in 310 major-league relief appearances and Andy Sonnanstine one in 41. Adam Russell, McGee and Ramos have never pitched in the ninth inning of a big-league game with a lead.

"We're very confident that Farnsworth and Peralta are going to be good and are going to get really key outs for us late in the game," Friedman said. "Cruz certainly has the upside to do so. And then we've got guys that are a little more inexperienced that it's less certain, but there's upside. So we need a few of those guys to emerge as high-leverage monsters for us to have a really good bullpen."

As it is now — after becoming the first team to replace six relievers who worked at least 55 games the previous season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau — Friedman said they should be above league average though acknowledging they have to exceed that standard to be competitive in the American League East. (The MLB average for save conversions last season was 69 percent; the Rays, who had the most save situations in the AL, were at 76 percent.)

Maddon — whose handling of the bullpen could replace his lineup juggling as the top conversation topic among critics — has his concerns: deciding which guys to use when, not overdoing it in warming them up for potential matchups that disappear and how they, particularly the less-experienced ones, respond to failure.

But he also has confidence in what he has seen, noting this group is more physical than last year's and that a year ago, they didn't know that group would blossom into one of the AL's best.

"I like where they're at right now," Maddon said. "I think there's a nice complementary group out there. And also in the back of your mind you know that J.P. Howell is getting better."

Howell is on schedule for a mid May return from shoulder surgery and could turn out to be the savior given his 17-of-25 performance in 2009.

But until then, or until Peralta or Farnsworth or Cruz or one of the others emerges, there will be nightly meetings of the Rays closing committee.

"Believe me, I'd rather have that ninth-inning animal, absolutely," Maddon said. "It makes the entire day easier game-planning, makes the game in progress so much easier to manage. But this is what we've got."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays to start with closer-by-committee 03/30/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 30, 2011 10:14pm]
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