Rays Exploring Trade For Closer: Who To Watch For?

Yesterday on ESPN 1040’s own Primetime program, Rays’ Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman hinted that the team is looking for late-inning relief options on the trade market. Outside of in-house candidates, this is the last hope of bringing in outside help for the back end of the bullpen now that the free agent market for closer’s is effectively empty.

While the Rays have the trade chips to acquire nearly any player they desire, they will not overpay for a reliever. Not in terms of contract years, salary, or return in a trade. With that said, proven closers like Joakim Soria and Heath Bell are probably not options. Soria is affordable ($4.75-million guaranteed), but would command premium compensation in a trade. Bell is a free agent after 2011, but his salary for next season is set at $7.5-million in addition to the players required to net him in a trade.

Though Soria and Bell are unlikely, there are a few names out there who may be available via trade that could interest the Rays.

*Note the following is pure speculation

Frank Francisco – Texas Rangers

The one-time closer for Texas, Francisco served as a set-up man to Neftali Feliz in 2010. His numbers (3.76 ERA in 56 games) were good enough to soldify Type-A free agent status; however, he chose to return to the Rangers instead of hitting the open market. That decision looks like a mistake given the amount of dollars tossed at middle relievers this offseason.

While the Rangers welcomed him back by offering arbitration, he was dangled as trade bait this offseason. In fact, Francisco was nearly a member of the Tampa Bay Rays in a proposed deal for Matt Garza, meaning the Rays should still have an interest in him. The 31-year-old right-hander is the owner of a fantastic strikeout rate and gets swinging strikes in bunches. He appears to be headed toward an arbitration hearing and should make around $5-million. He is a free agent after the 2011 season.

Joel Hanrahan – Pittsburgh Pirates

Hanrahan was traded by the Washington Nationals to Pittsburgh in mid-2009. He posted his best numbers in 2010 as a member of the Pirates’ bullpen. In 72 appearances, he posted an ERA of 3.62 with six saves. He is a two-pitch reliever with a fastball that sits in the high-90s. He also possesses a really good slider that has contributed to his career strikeout rate of 10.30 per nine innings. He has never served as a full-time closer, but has saved 24 games in the last three years.

At age 29, Hanrahan is arbitration-eligible for the first time and avoided a hearing by signing a one-year deal worth $1.4-million. With an affordable 2011 salary, and two additional years of team control, he definitely fits the Rays’ salary range. On the other hand, he also fits in with the young Pirates who plan to have him compete for the closer’s job this spring, meaning the Rays would have to provide adequate trade compensation.

Michael Wuertz – Oakland Athletics

Bullpens and relievers are volatile in nature so there is always the chance to catch lightning in a bottle. That is what the Oakland A’s did in February of 2009 when they acquired Wuertz from the Chicago Cubs for a pair of minor leaguers. He rewarded his new team with a 2.63 ERA while striking out a ridiculous 102 batters in 78.2 innings in 2009. Working off a really good slider, Wuertz owns a ridiculous career swing and miss rate of 16%.

He took a step back in 2010, posting a 4.31 ERA in 48 games. The jump in ERA was largely fueled by a spike in home runs that is unsustainable and should regress back to normal in 2011. Last year, he signed a two-year extension with the A’s, and is guaranteed a $2.8-million salary in 2011. There is a club option worth $3.25-million for 2012 or a buyout for $250,000.

The A’s have a closer in Andrew Bailey and have added Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes in recent days. They also have a steady right-hander in Brad Ziegler in their pen. If the Rays make a competitive offer, Oakland may be interested in trading their third or fourth best reliever and shedding the $3-million owed to him. He only has 11 career saves, however, his strikeout rate and swing and miss stuff profile well at the end of games.

Despite all three pitchers looking like matches on paper, putting together the pieces of trade is much more difficult. Then again, knowing Andrew Friedman, overcoming difficultly only takes a day’s work.