Balfour returns as Rays closer

"This is a big deal for us,'' owner Stuart Sternberg, right, said of signing Grant Balfour, left.
"This is a big deal for us,'' owner Stuart Sternberg, right, said of signing Grant Balfour, left.
Published Jan. 24, 2014

TAMPA — The unexpected and opportunistic addition Thursday of All-Star closer Grant Balfour was the latest significant expenditure the Rays have made to bolster their chances for success this coming season.

Those prospects are obviously enhanced by also keeping ace David Price, who has been the subject of trade speculation throughout the offseason. And though principal owner Stuart Sternberg cautioned that things can change, he delivered the strongest indication yet the Rays will keep Price in a bid to not only make their fifth playoff appearance in seven seasons but get back to the World Series.

"My expectation is that David Price will be here," Sternberg said. "None of this was done with the belief David would or would not be here. This was done to take a baseball team that has the opportunity to be special this year and give it the best chance to be special. Stuff happens, but we're not waking up every morning waiting for the phone to ring, and we're not dialing around the league trying to make something happen."

With Price, the Rays have one of the game's top rotations, and they feel confident in a lineup that features talent and depth. Signing Balfour, 36, to a two-year, $12 million deal filled the one potentially large hole at the back end of what other­wise looks to be a deep bullpen. It also gives them, for what projects to be a franchise-high opening day payroll of around $80 million, potentially their best overall squad.

Balfour, who pitched for the Rays from 2007 to 2010 and still lives in the Clearwater area, was available only because a two-year, $15 million agreement with the Orioles fell apart in December, when Baltimore had concerns over his physical, reportedly about the right-hander's shoulder. Balfour was upset, and in insisting there were no issues, his agents had Rays team orthopedist Koco Eaton examine him and say so publicly.

Balfour passed a physical for the Rays this week — "with flying colors, apparently," he said — and added there should be no lingering questions. "I'm totally healthy, 100 percent healthy, and you'll see that when I take the field," he said. "I'm looking forward to it."

Might those bruised feelings lead Balfour, emotional on the mound already, to be even more fired up to face the Orioles?

"I guess you've got to tune in," he said with a laugh.

With Balfour back on the market, Rays officials started to consider "what an ideal fit he could be," Sternberg said, though he knew that the total payroll "is going to cost us more than we can afford."

Balfour, meanwhile, said several teams were interested and he could have received more than the $12 million ($5 million this season, $7 million in 2015) he will get from the Rays.

But the native Australian said the opportunity to come back to his adopted hometown, to play again for manager Joe Maddon and his staff, and to be part of a contending team that he wished he didn't have to leave in the first place all seemed too good to pass up.

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"It wasn't all about the money," Balfour said. "I did have other offers that were higher offers, but to be here in Tampa and play for Joe and to have the familiarity — I love the area and I love to play for the Rays."

Balfour worked as a setup man during his first stint with the Rays, but he moved into the closer's role with the A's in 2012 and has been one of the game's best over the past two years. He converted 62 of 67 saves, including 44 straight, with a 2.56 ERA and 144 strikeouts in 137⅓ innings and was a 2013 All-Star.

Though Maddon typically doesn't like to designate a closer, he acknowledged during Thursday's media session at the Tampa Museum of Art that he planned to make an exception for Balfour.

"We're actually going to use the C-word this year," he said.

Miscellany: To make room for Balfour on the roster, left-handed reliever Pedro Figueroa was designated for assignment. … Sternberg said he had not met with Rick Kriseman since he took over as St. Petersburg's mayor on the stadium issue but at some point during the season he expects they will "sit down and talk about what we're trying to accomplish, both of us, and we'll take it from there."