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Another year, another low-cost closer to the rescue for the Rays

John Romano | The Rays have made an art out of finding undervalued relievers to step into the closer's role on an annual basis.
Nick Anderson had 41 strikeouts in 21.1 innings and a 2.11 ERA after being acquired from the Marlins before the trade deadline last summer.
Nick Anderson had 41 strikeouts in 21.1 innings and a 2.11 ERA after being acquired from the Marlins before the trade deadline last summer. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Jul. 9, 2020
Updated Jul. 10, 2020

ST. PETERSBURG — The Rays will have a new closer in 2020, which comes as a shock to absolutely no one.

Trying to recall the closer for any given season is the ultimate Rays fan test. Let’s see, Tyler Walker gave way to Alberto Reyes who was followed by Troy Percival who was replaced by J.P. Howell who turned it over to Rafael Soriano who was succeeded by Kyle Farnsworth who was shoved aside by Fernando Rodney. In the past 15 seasons, they’ve had 13 relievers lead them in saves.

And for that, you should be eternally grateful.

Evolving and adapting has been the business model that has kept the low-revenue Rays in contention all these years, but no spot has given them greater value than guys at the back of the bullpen.

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Look at it this way:

Since 2008, the Rays are tied with the Yankees for the most saves (558) in Major League Baseball. They are also second to the Yankees when it comes to save percentage (73 percent to 71) and relief wins (366 to 361). But the more interesting fact is the Yankees dropped about $162 million on their closers during that span, while the Rays were closer to $40 million for their highest-paid relievers.

This is an overly broad generalization, but the Rays have figured out they can usually find a top-notch closer without shopping in MLB’s high-end neighborhoods.

Essentially, they’ve decided that closers are a little riskier than other positions and so it’s best to have an abundance of low-priced options rather than invest too much in one big name.

“Because bullpen performance is a limited sample with relatively few innings, it can be very volatile,” Rays general manager Erik Neander said. “And yet it’s very important because games are often hanging in the balance, even though the workload over the course of a season is not that great. It allows for a lot of fluctuation and randomness. For us, we try not to get too fine. We try to identify players who have ingredients that we believe can grow into prominent roles in the pen.”

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Nick Anderson delivers during practice Thursday at Tropicana Field.
Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Nick Anderson delivers during practice Thursday at Tropicana Field. [ CHRIS URSO | Times ]

Which brings us to Nick Anderson.

There has been no formal announcement that Anderson will be Tampa Bay’s closer in 2020, but it would make sense if his number was called in the most high-leverage situations. He was nearly unhittable in his two months with the Rays last season with a 41-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

And his back story perfectly fits the Tampa Bay model. A 32nd-round draft pick who had to revive his career in an independent league, didn’t make his big-league debut until he was nearly 29 and was then acquired from the Marlins last summer before his value got too high.

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Because the Rays have two more years of salary control before Anderson is eligible for arbitration (he’ll make $577,000 this year), he stands a good chance of sticking around Tampa Bay for a few seasons, which made it easier to trade 2019 closer Emilio Pagan to San Diego for outfielder Manuel Margot in February.

Of course, Tampa Bay’s philosophy is not set in stone. The Rays have occasionally dabbled in high-priced relievers, paying Soriano $7.25 million in 2010 (a good investment) and acquiring Heath Bell in 2014 (a complete flop).

Tampa Bay even chased free agent closer Craig Kimbrel last spring before he signed with the Cubs. Kimbrel was a disaster in 2019, and Chicago is now sweating over a four-year, $43 million contract.

The Rays, meanwhile, are very specifically not calling Anderson a closer. The job was initially given to Jose Alvarado last season, and he struggled with his control and, eventually, injuries and confidence. Pagan eventually claimed the role, but Tampa Bay had 11 relievers get at least one save.

Maybe that explains why the Rays are reluctant to anoint Anderson too soon. For as dominant as he was in 2019, he only had one save situation in the ninth inning all year, and that was with the Marlins.

Related: 2020 schedule presents Rays with some serious challenges

So if it isn’t Anderson in the ninth inning, it could be Alvarado. Or Diego Castillo. Or Colin Poche. Or Oliver Drake.

“We’ve tried to stay away from naming specific roles because we think it’s a benefit to our club to be able to be versatile and prioritize matchups,” manager Kevin Cash said. “But there’s no way you can doubt the value of how challenging getting the last three outs of the game is.”

History says the Rays will keep an open mind when it comes the closer.

And whoever it is will likely be successful.