ST. PETERSBURG — Quick, tell me who is going to be the Rays closer in 2020.
Are they going back to Jose Alvarado? Or did Emilio Pagan really unseat him? And how about Nick Anderson, who might have been the best reliever in the American League not to record a save in 2019?
Tough choices, right? You could make a case for each one of them. So why not use all of them?
Someone will likely emerge as the principal ninth-inning guy — and Diego Castillo could be in the running, too — but it’s not out of the question that Tampa Bay could ping pong between closers depending on matchups, workloads and effectiveness at any given time.
The world may still love 35-save relievers, but those guys tend to make $10 to $15 million a year, and that’s more than Tampa Bay typically budgets for the entire bullpen. So after flirting with Craig Kimbrel last summer — and breathing a sigh of relief that they did not get him in retrospect — the Rays have decided their relief corps looks just fine without a big-name closer.
And the numbers back them up.
Rays relievers threw more innings, struck out more hitters and had a lower ERA than any team in the majors last year. Of course, some of that is affected by the use of openers so it’s not a perfect apples-to-apples comparison.
But even when you break it down to the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, the Rays were still in the top five in ERA, on-base percentage, strikeouts per inning and baserunners per inning. And they pulled that off despite a May-June meltdown by Alvarado and Castillo.
So is pitching coach Kyle Snyder worried the Rays are entering spring training without a single reliever with more than 20 career saves?
“No way. No, no. Oh no," he said laughing. “That’s the last concern I have. We have way too much talent, we really do."
For decades, the conventional wisdom in baseball was that it was different pitching in the ninth inning. It took a certain mindset, a certain confidence, a certain level of ability to be a closer. And there is some truth to all of that, simply given the pressure of being asked to preserve a victory.
But some of it is self-fulfilling, too. Teams treated closers differently, and a lot of pitchers bought into that myth-making status. They were taught from the time they reached the majors that the ninth inning was more hallowed than eight innings that preceded it.
The Rays have employed some big-time closers in the past (Fernando Rodney saved 48 in 2012, Rafael Soriano saved 45 in 2010 and Troy Percival was brought in to anchor the pen in 2008) but their current group has not been burdened as much with defined roles.
Manager Kevin Cash might have trusted certain pitchers with the lead, but he also was not afraid to bring someone in earlier or later than usual simply based on the opponents’ lineup. That helps explain how the Rays ended up with 11 different pitchers getting saves in 2019.
It’s still tricky to navigate egos, especially when high save numbers can influence future salaries, but the Rays managed to get buy-in from the entire bullpen last season.
“There’s no doubt that (save numbers) matters to guys," Snyder said. “But the other side of that is that this shows we have confidence in all of them, and I think that might be something that gets a little shortsighted if you just go by tradition. I think those guys have come to understand that, ‘Hey listen, this could be your night.’ I have confidence in every single of one of those guys, and Kevin does as well."
So who is most likely to get the majority of calls in the ninth inning?
Anderson may have the best stuff, but the least experience at this level. He’ll get a shot to prove the ninth inning is no different to him. Pagan and Castillo will get their fair share of chances, too. Alvarado may be the biggest wild card. He can look unhittable at times, but he struggled so much in the closer’s role last season that he will have to prove himself again.
Meanwhile, Chaz Roe, Oliver Drake and Colin Poche will also be pitching with the lead late in games.
“Basically," Snyder said, “it’s whoever gives us the best chance to finish the game on that night."