Rays Bullpen: Double Down In 2020? Balancing Of Roles Required

Rays Return A Powerful Pen, Reinforcements Still Needed

The 2019 Rays bullpen finished first in the American League in ERA (3.71), second in Field Independent Pitching (3.94), and fourth in saves (46).

“We feel really good about that group. The depth of it, the talent. It’s probably a little more name brand than store brand now compared to where it was in July-August last year in the way they stepped up in the postseason and being on that stage.” Rays Senior Vice President and General Manager Erik Neander said. “But, at the same time, usually the bullpen that was really good for you last year, you don’t want to double down with the same group.”

Neander’s right. As any baseball fan can attest after watching there solid projected bullpen fall apart and as a result watching the losses pile up. There is no magic bullet to building the bullpen either. Prior to the 2018 season the Colorado Rockies invested $108MM into their pen signing Wade Davis, Bryan Shaw, and Jake McGee to lucrative contracts.

Davis paid dividends in 2018 leading the NL in saves (43) but in 2019 he was removed from the closers role after posting an unsightly 8.65 ERA. He is owed $17MM in 2020 and his contract includes a $1MM buyout in 2021.

Bryan Shaw has struggled since signing posting a 7-8 mark and a 5.61 ERA over the past two season. He only has 25 holds combined over the past two season after registering 20 or more in each of the four seasons prior to signing. He earned $16MM in the first two years of his deal and is owed $9MM in 2020. His contract also includes a 2021 option that includes a $2MM buyout.

Jake McGee, like Bryan Shaw, has also struggled since signing his extension prior to the 2018 season. In the first two years of his deal he has pitched to a 2-6 mark with a 5.54 ERA and has recorded just 21 holds. In the two season prior to inking his extension with the Rockies he saved 18 games and registered 24 holds. He has made $15.5MM over the first two years of his deal and is owed $9.5MM in 2020. His contract includes an option in 2021 with a $2MM buyout.

The Rockies are not the only team to invest heavily in their bullpen and watch it implode on them in short order. Other teams have had success pouring money into their bullpens with much better results. The New York Yankees have constantly focused a large amount of capital in their ‘pen with names like Aroldis Chapman, Zach Britton, and Adam Ottavino all currently on their roster.

Then you have the Tampa Bay Rays. A team that seldom invests money into what is considered the most volatile unit in baseball and have found success. Is it simply a matter of the Rays being “cheap” which in this writers opinion is a simplistic (read lazy) way to analyze the issue?

On December 11, 2009 the Rays traded Jesse Chavez to the Atlanta Braves for closer Rafael Soriano (More Here). The trade came days after Rays owner Stu Sternberg said the team wasn’t going to be acquiring a $7MM closer. Soriano was due to make $7MM the following season. Soriano turned out to be a wise investment appearing in 64 games pitching to a 1.73 ERA and leading the American League in Saves with 45.

In January of 2014 the Rays signed Grant Balfour, who had failed his physical with the Baltimore Orioles, to a 2-year/$12MM deal which included a $1MM signing bonus, $4MM in 2015, and $7MM in 2016. This didn’t work out well for Tampa Bay as Balfour struggled in 2014 going 2-6 with a 4.91 ERA spanning 64 games. The bottom gave way in 2015 as he appeared in just six games with the Rays before being released. He’d never appear in a big league game again.

Some years, the front office has to spend a lot of time and resources rebuilding or restocking their bullpen. For instance, following the 2010 season, the Rays had to rebuild their whole bullpen. The 2010 ‘pen led the AL in ERA (3.33) and the Rays won the American League East with a record of 96-66. After the season they lost Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Lance Cormier, Dan Wheeler, and Chad Qualls to free agency.

The Rays newly constructed bullpen in 2011 finished with a 3.73 ERA which was good for 5th in the American League. The Rays finished 2011 with a 91-71 record and lost to the Texas Rangers in the ALDS for the second year in a row.

This winter the Rays have much less work to do, but that doesn’t mean they should be content with doubling down with last years crew. “I think we’d be really happy rolling into this season letting those guys compete to establish themselves and off we go.” Neander said. “It’s not an area, much like I said about the position players and pitching in general, I don’t think we have to do anything but I think it is part of our job description to use the time that we have this winter to see if there are ways we can improve ourselves one way or another.”

If the season were to open today, the Rays pen would have Emilio Pagan, Nick Anderson, Diego Castillo, Colin Poche, Oliver Drake, Chaz Roe, Jose Alvarado, Austin Pruitt (out of options). There are some yet to be agreed upon rule changes that will affect the roster construction and utilization in 2020. For these purposes, the assumption is that relievers will have to face three batters or end an inning and that the maximum number or pitchers on the 26-man roster will be capped at 13.

Are the Rays well positioned with relievers heading into 2020? “Bullpen’s are a hard thing to predict. You almost certainly need more talent and numbers than you have spots just to give yourself the best chance to come out of the early part of the season with a strong unit.” Neander said. “We really like the group we have, like where we finished up. Don’t want to get too comfortable because bullpens they tend to be volatile but really really pleased with the players we’re bringing back.”

How comfortable should Neander be with the relievers slotted into the 2020 bullpen?

Pagan Brought The Heat In 2019:

Rays Defeat Red Sox
Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Emilio Pagan, left, celebrates with Avisall Garcia after the team’s 6-5 win over the Boston Red Sox in a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Pagan earned the save and Garcia hit a two run double. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

On December 21st of last season, the Rays acquired Emilio Pagan in a three team trade with the Texas Rangers and Oakland Athletics.  Tampa Bay sent minor league pitchers Brock Burke, Yoel Espina, and Kyle Bird to the Rangers. The Athletics sent Pagan and a competitive balance draft pick to Tampa Bay. Texas sent Jurickson Profar to the Athletics and minor league pitcher Rollie Lacy to Tampa Bay.

Pagan did not make the opening day roster but was called up from Durham on April 16th to replace Blake Snell who went on the injured list after fracturing a toe in his right foot. Pagan took hold in the back of the Rays’ bullpen armed with a fastball that averaged 95.6 miles per hour, nearly two miles an hour more than his previous two seasons in MLB, Pagan worked in 66 games logging 70 innings and pitching to a 2.31 ERA. He struck out an impressive 12.3 batters per nine innings and saving 20 games. 

Positives: Based on his increased velocity Pagan seems like a candidate to carry over the success seen in 2018. Additionally, the high leverage experience from the playoff push and into the postseason should benefit him moving forward.

Negative: The long ball continues to plague him. He also doesn’t have a long track record of success to fall back on. Not too much to pick on with Pagan.

Castillo Finishes 2019 Strong:

Tampa Bay Rays’ Diego Castillo pitches to a Houston Astros during the first inning of Game 4 of a baseball American League Division Series, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

Diego Castillo worked in 65 games, including six as an opener.  He pitched to a 5-8 mark with a 3.41 ERA (26-ER/68.2-IP) and recorded eight saves. Like most of the 2019 Rays, he spent time on the injured list. He went on the IL on June 23rd with a sore shoulder and didn’t return until July 12th. 

After returning from the IL he went 4-2 with a 2.88 ERA (11-ER/34.1-IP) spanning 32 appearances, including six starts. He was particularly sharp in September pitching to a 3-0 mark with a 1.23 ERA (2-ER/14.2IP) spanning 12 appearances. 

Positives: Castillo finished really strong showing the powering fastball mixed with a wipe-out slider that has defined him in his first two years in the MLB. He also increased his groundball rate from 45.3% in 2018 to 56.9% in 2020.

Negatives: Consistency seemed to plague Castillo in 2019. His command seemed to come and go and his pitch mix seemed to get more and more reliant on the fastball.


How much of the ditching of the slider was due to a nagging shoulder injury? The lack of consistency with his command is the only real negative.

Mr. Anderson Goes Beast Mode:

Tampa Bay Rays’ Nick Anderson pitches against the Houston Astros in the fifth inning of Game 4 of a baseball American League Division Series, Tuesday, Oct. 8, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

Nick Anderson was acquired at the trade deadline from the Miami Marlins along with pitcher Trevor Richards. The Rays sent Miami Ryne Stanek and minor league outfielder Jesus Sanchez.  

With the Marlins Anderson appeared in 45 games logging 43.2-innings of work posting a 2-4 mark with a 3.92 ERA.  He struck out 14.22 batters per nine and walked 3.30 batters per nine. Once with Tampa Bay he entered into a whole another stratosphere of dominance.

With the Rays he logged 21.1-innings spanning 23 games striking out 17.3 batters per nine innings while walking just 0.84 batters per nine.   His 17.3 K/9 from August 1st to the end of the season was the best in the majors ahead of Josh Hader (15.97) of the Milwaukee Brewers.

It was interesting that while with Miami he used his fastball 56% of the time and his curveball 44%. With Tampa Bay he used his fastball 69% of the time and his curveball 31%.

Positives: What’s not to like? After toiling away in independent baseball and the minor leagues, Anderson finally made his way to the big leagues as a 28 year old rookie and took off once acquired by Tampa Bay. He has swing and miss stuff (19.3%), has a fastball that averages 96.1 mph, and a nice curveball that acts more like a slider at times making a second/third type offering.

Negatives: Anderson doesn’t have a big league track record to fall back on. He also wasn’t is susceptible to the long ball. Odds are he won’t be as dominant with Tampa Bay over a 162 game season as he was in his burst from August 1st on. Like Pagan and Castillo, there really isn’t a lot to pick on with Anderson based on his 2019 performance.

We Love The Drake:

Tampa Bay Rays’ Oliver Drake pitches against the Houston Astros in the seventh inning during Game 3 of a baseball American League Division Series, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

In 2018 Oliver Drake made history by appearing in a big league game with five different organizations (Milwaukee Brewers, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels, Toronto Blue Jays, and Minnesota Twins).  Despite a strong finish with the Minnesota Twins in which he appeared in 19 games and pitched to a 2.21 ERA (5-ER/20.1-IP) he was designated for assignment at the end of the season.  

After a topsy-turvy ride through 2018 it shouldn’t be expected that his path to his new team would be linear….and it wasn’t.  He was claimed off waivers by the Rays on November 1st but he wouldn’t last long on the Rays roster. He was designated for assignment to make room on the 40-man roster after the Rays signed Avisail Garcia and he was claimed off waivers by the Toronto Blue Jays on November 26th.  On January 4th, 2019, Tampa Bay reacquired Drake from the Toronto Blue Jays in exchange for cash considerations.

Drake opened the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls and appeared in 19 games posting a 1-2 mark with a 4.94 ERA (13-ER/23.2-IP).  After his recall he appeared in 50 games with Tampa Bay logging 56-innings posting a 5-2 mark with a 3.21 ERA. He was very effective for Tampa Bay holding the opposition to a His .181 average which. ranked 6th among AL relievers.

The righty is known as “death to lefties” as he limited left-handed batters to a .147 average (15-for-102) and allowed just three extra-base hits and had a 16.5 strikeout to walk ratio (33K/2BB) against them.  He struggles against right-handed batters with just a 2.18 K/BB ratio (37K/17BB) and allowed eight homers. Overall, he held left-handed batters to a slash line of .147/.163/.196 and right-handed batters to .216/.339.526.

Like many others in the bullpen, Drake finished 2019 strong going 5-1 with a 2.27 ERA (8-ER/31.2-IP) over his final 26 appearances beginning on July 28th.  He held the opposition scoreless in 10 of his last appearances holding opponents to a .049 average (2-for-41) with 20 strikeouts in that span.

Positives: Drake dominated left-handed batters and had a very strong performance down the stretch. He also has a 52.3% groundball rate.

Negatives: Drake struggles against right-handed batters and with the MLB instituting the 3-batter minimum (or end of inning) requirements will his utilization be limited or will his performance suffer? Unlike Pagan, Castillo, and Anderson, Drake does have a track record. While last year was a career year for him, one has to wonder if he’ll be able to follow up with another positive season in 2020.

Poche Gets Valuable Experience In Rookie Campaign:

Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Colin Poche against the Houston Astros during Game 4 of a baseball American League Division Series Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Chris O’Meara)

Colin Poche opened the season with the Durham Bulls and appeared in 20 games there going 2-2 with a 6.26 ERA (19-ER/27.1-IP). Despite the ugly numbers, Tampa Bay called him up on June 8th. He made a team high 51 appearances for Tampa Bay after his callup posting a 5-5 mark with a 4.70 ERA (27-ER/51.2IP).

He led all American League lefty relievers in average against at .181 (33-for-182) with a minimum of 50-IP.  His 12.54 strikeout per nine innings pitches ranked fourth among AL lefties.  

Positives: Despite not having an electric fastball (averages just 93 mph), he gets swing and miss (17.2%). He’s effective against both right handed batters (.665 OPS) and left handed batters (.625 OPS).

Negatives: Poche gets a lot of his swing and miss and strikeouts because of a deceptive delivery. MLB hitters had an opportunity to see him all of 2019 and could make the adjustment in 2020. Poche was dominant in Triple-A in 2018 but was hit pretty hard prior to his promotion in 2019. Unfortunately, like many others in the Rays’ bullpen, he doesn’t have a track record to fall back on.

Roe Battles To Find Consistency:

Tampa Bay Rays’ Chaz Roe pitches against the Houston Astros in the sixth inning during Game 3 of a baseball American League Division Series, Monday, Oct. 7, 2019, in St. Petersburg, Fla. (AP Photo/Scott Audette)

Chaz Roe finished 2019 with a 1-3 mark and an ERA of 4.06 (23-ER/51-IP) appearing in a team high 71 games.  While he improved his strikeout rate to 11.5 batters per nine innings he struggled with his control recording a career high walk rate of 5.8 batters per nine innings.  He allowed only three homers all season and none after July 2nd.

He was used primarily against right-handed batters holding them to a .258 average (39-for-151). He faced 55 left handed batters and they had a .227 average against him (10-for-44). 

His season was a roller coaster to say the least. Through the end of May he had a 2.20 ERA (4-ER/16.1IP) in 24 appearances. From the start of June until after the All-Star break, pitched to a 9.82 ERA (12-ER/11-IP).

Through the end of May, recorded a 2.20 ERA (16.1-IP, 4-ER) in 24 apps…from the start of June until the All-Star break, pitched to a 9.82 ERA (11-IP, 12-ER) in 15 apps to increase his season ERA to 5.27. He appeared in 32 games in the second half posting a 2.66 ERA (7-ER/23.2-IP) while striking out 29 batters and walking 11.

Positives: Roe’s bugs bunny slider is nearly impossible to hit and the break was just as biting this year in year’s past.

Negatives: Lack of command of the strike zone resulting in a career high walk rate of 5.5 batters per nine innings. Durability may be an issue as he’s worked 61 games in 2018 (50.1-IP) and 71 games (51-IP) in 2019. The 3-batter rule (or end of an inning) may limit his utilization or effectiveness. In his career he’s held right handed batters to a OPS of .626 while left-handed batters have hit him at a .872.

Alvarado’s Lost Season:

Tampa Bay Rays Defeat New York Yankees
Tampa Bay Rays relief pitcher Jose Alvarado, left, and catcher Erik Kratz celebrate after an 11 inning, 2-1 victory against the New York Yankees in a baseball game, Saturday, May 18, 2019, in New York. (AP Photo/Jim McIsaac)

The biggest mystery from the 2019 bullpen was Jose Alvarado and thus becomes the biggest question mark with the 2020 bullpen.

He missed nearly a month (June 2 through June 28) while on Family Medical List and had two stints on the injured list. He missed July 12th through August 13th recovering from an oblique strain. His season ended with a sore elbow on August 25th. All told, Alvarado only appeared in 35 games with the Rays logging just 30-innings pitching to a 1-6 mark with a 4.80 ERA. In his 30 innings of worked he struck out 39 batters (11.7 K/9)  but walked 27 batters (8.1 BB/9). 

It was frustrating to watch Alvarado collapse as his season got off to such a great start. In his first 18 appearances he logged 17.1-innings of work and pitched to a 1.04 ERA while striking out 26 and walking just eight batters.

His final 17 appearances can only be characterized as a complete disaster. During that span Alvarado pitched to a 9.95 ERA (14-ER/12.2-IP) while the opposition hit .368/.526/.561 against him. In his 12.2-innings of work he struck out 13 and issued 19 walks. 

With the family issue in Venezuela and the injuries Alvarado will be looking forward to a clean slate when he reports to Port Charlotte this spring.

“That was a near lost year for a variety of reasons with him and he certainly unfortunate. but I think we’d be remiss not to remember what the year prior looked like or to not remember what spring training and the early part of this past season looked like.” Erik Neander said. “My hope is that those challenging experiences he had this year will make him better next year, will harden him up a little bit. Like those life experiences, I think hopefully they work to his benefit.”

It was just two years ago when Alvarado pitched to a 2.39 ERA registering eight saves and 32 holds while striking out 80 batters in 64 innings. His first 10 appearances in 2019 were scoreless and he carried a 1.04 ERA (2-ER/17.1-IP) through May 18th.

Despite the gaudy numbers in 2018 and to open 2019, Alvarado is going to have to regain the trust of his manager, teammates, and front office. “He’s got to do it,” Neander said. “it’s not going to be handed to him.”

Positives: The electric fastball is still in his arsenal. Of all the things that went wrong for Alvarado in 2019, losing heat wasn’t one of them. His fastball averaged 98.2 mph in 2019, up from 97.4 mph the year before.

Negatives: The strike zone and confidence has eroded. Last season his walk rate was an ugly 8.1 batters per nine. Even in 2018 his walk rate wasn’t ideal at 4.1 batters per nine.

The Other Guys:

You can never have enough options coming out of your bullpen. This includes both depth on your 40-man roster and players not on the 40-man roster that are in the upper levels of the minor leagues. “You almost certainly need more talent and numbers than you have spots.” Neander said. “Just to give yourself the best chance to come out of the early part of the season with a strong unit.”

Just going back to the 2019 bullpen, Emilio Pagan who led the team in saves opened the year in Durham as did Colin Poche, Oliver Drake, and Andrew Kittredge. Poche, Drake and Kittredge were not even on the Rays 40-man roster.

As Tampa Bay looks deeper beyond the group of seven mentioned above, there are a slew of other guys. This list could include starters that may fit the traditional long man role. Austin Pruitt, Anthony Banda, Trevor Richards, or Jalen Beeks.

The Rays are somewhat thin on traditional relievers on the 40-man roster.

Andrew Kittredge appeared in 37 games for Tampa Bay in 2019 and posted a 1-0 mark with 4.17 ERA. His fastball velocity increased to 95 miles per hour from his previous 93.1 and his strikeout rate improved from 7.04 strikeouts per nine innings in 2018 to 10.51 strikeouts per nine innings in 2019.

Peter Fairbanks was acquired from the Texas Rangers in July in exchange for infielder Nick Solak. Fairbanks, 25, battled injuries through his minor league career but rebounded to make his big league debut with the Ranger in 2019. With the Rays, he appeared in 13 games logging a 5.11 ERA (7ER/12.1IP).

Two non-roster relievers currently in the Rays’ system that could make their way up to the big league in 2020 are Phoenix Sanders and Tyler Zombro.

Sanders, a University of South Florida alum, spent the 2019 season split between the Durham Bulls (8 games) and the Montgomery Biscuits (37 games). Overall, he posted a 4-3 mark with a 1.92 ERA (13-ER/61-IP) while striking out 68 batters.

Zombro, an undrafted free agent, spent the 2019 season appearing in four games with the Durham Bulls and 37 games with the Montgomery Biscuits. Overall, he pitched to a 2-1 mark with a 2.29 ERA (16-ER/63-IP) while striking out 57 batters while walking just 10.

It’s obvious from examining who is in the Rays projected 2020 bullpen as well as the lack of traditional relievers on the 40-man roster and in the upper levels of the minors that more arms are needed to fill that role.

More arms will be added either to the 40-man roster to increase competition in the traditional relief role or to assume a spot in the bullpen that will be sent to the minors to increase the volume of traditional relievers for Kevin Cash to call upon. Additionally, other arms will be added from the bevy of players available to sign minor league deals or via waiver claims/trades as other teams sign players and are forced to make room on their 40-man rosters.