Remember Blake Snell’s words if the Rays bullpen falls short

Tampa Bay did little to upgrade its bullpen this winter, and the team’s ace wonders why Craig Kimbrel was not on the radar.
Blake Snell (4), shown here embracing Rays opener Ryne Stanek (55), thinks Tampa Bay's bullpen needs a closer and suggested the Rays sign free agent Craig Kimbrel. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Blake Snell (4), shown here embracing Rays opener Ryne Stanek (55), thinks Tampa Bay's bullpen needs a closer and suggested the Rays sign free agent Craig Kimbrel. TAILYR IRVINE | Times
Published March 4, 2019|Updated March 4, 2019

This is what an ace does. He steps up at critical moments.

In this case, before the regular season even begins.

Blake Snell went high and tight on Rays management the other day. Maybe it was a pitch thrown with serious intent, or maybe it was just a gentle nudge.

Either way, it’s the first time someone has broken rank around here for quite some time. Usually, you only hear cracks about Tampa Bay’s payroll once a player has left town. This was something different. A complaint, or maybe just a plea, from within the clubhouse.

Snell told Tampa Bay Times baseball writer Marc Topkin that he would like to see the Rays go after free agent closer Craig Kimbrel, who remains unsigned three weeks into spring training. Snell noted the team’s bargain-level payroll and argued Kimbrel would be an instant upgrade.

This was significant for two reasons:

No. 1, Snell is the reigning Cy Young Award winner.

No. 2, he’s absolutely right.

It may turn out that Kimbrel’s salary demands are beyond both logic and Tampa Bay’s economic realities, but Snell’s larger point is still true.

If the Rays see themselves as postseason contenders, why wouldn’t they have done more to upgrade their bullpen in the off-season? Tampa Bay is more reliant on late-inning relievers than most teams, and that has nothing to do with starters or openers. It’s the way the team is built.

The Rays had 74 save opportunities last season, which was the second-most in the American League. That’s partially because they had 90 victories, which obviously leads to more save chances. But it’s also because they do not have an explosive offense, so they typically play a lot of close games.

And yet Tampa Bay’s bullpen looks dangerously thin. There are some power arms – Jose Alvarado, Diego Castillo, Ryne Stanek – but very little experience. Alvarado’s eight career saves actually lead the staff.

Now it’s true Alvarado has been impressive in the ninth inning – he’s never given up an earned run in 15.2 innings in the ninth – but he’s also never been a fulltime closer, including his minor league career.

Still not worried? Okay, then let’s talk about depth.

For all the moaning and finger-pointing around baseball when it came to the opener strategy, Rays pitchers were far better than most when it came to innings 1 through 6. Tampa Bay pitchers had a 3.56 ERA through the first six innings while the rest of the AL was at 4.38. Impressive, right?

But Tampa Bay’s pitching got less impressive the deeper the game got. The Rays had an ERA of 4.09 in innings 7 to 9, which was similar to the rest of the AL at 4.17.

That would seem to be an argument for bulking up the bullpen, but instead the Rays lost Sergio Romo and Vidal Nuno to free agency. Their biggest addition was Emilio Pagan.

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Of course, you could make the argument that the bullpen will be helped by the acquisition of starter Charlie Morton, who should eat up innings that were handled by relievers last year.

And maybe a Hunter Wood or Wilmer Font or Ian Gibaut emerges as another high-leverage option for the Rays this summer, but that’s a high risk for a team with playoff aspirations.

So, going back to Snell’s point, should the Rays chase Kimbrel?

From a pure talent standpoint, that’s a no-brainer.

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Among pitchers with at least 300 saves, Kimbrel’s 90.7 save percentage is the best in baseball history. That would include unanimous Hall of Famer Mariano Rivera, although it’s hard to imagine Kimbrel’s percentage will remain above 90 percent as he gets older.

Still, there’s no doubt he’s been the best ninth-inning pitcher we’ve seen in quite some time. His 332 saves over the past eight years are more than Rivera ever got in any 8-year span.

Granted, there are some drawbacks. Kimbrel’s command abandoned him in the final three months of 2018, including the postseason, and that can’t be ignored. Also, his initial asking price of $90 million for six years seemed out-of-whack based on the current market landscape.

The Rays could make a convincing argument that Kimbrel’s potential salary could be untenable for a pitcher who only works 60 innings and a franchise with limited revenue streams.

So maybe the larger question is why Snell felt the need to speak up.

If Tampa Bay had done more to address the bullpen, this wouldn’t be an issue.

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Contact John Romano at Follow at @romano_tbtimes.