Rays showing interest in Kevin Gregg and Jesse Crain

After weeks of other teams speculating on the Tampa Bay Rays free agents, we are finally getting some whispers of which players the Rays may be targeting this offseason. On Sunday evening, former Minnesota Twins’ relief pitcher Jesse Crain was linked to the Rays amongst a slew of other teams. On Monday night, former Blue Jays’ closer Kevin Gregg was also mentioned as a possibility for the revamped Rays’ bullpen.

Crain is a 29-year-old right-hander who has spent his entire seven-year career with the Minnesota Twins. In 382 career innings he’s earned himself an ERA of 3.42. Advanced metrics say he’s probably closer to a 4.0 ERA type, but over the course of 65-70 innings that is a worthwhile reliever.

He posted his best strikeout in 2010 thanks to an increase in the amount of sliders thrown. Along with the slider, he throws a mid-90s fastball and a curveball. As mentioned, the slider was his best weapon – earning him a swing and a miss over 14% of the time. He is a Type-B free agent meaning the Twins would get a draft pick for him if he signs elsewhere, but it would come in the supplemental round and the Rays would not give up anything.

With so many other teams interested in his services, the Rays are going to have to offer something that other clubs may not – saves. Although he never served as a closer in his career, Crain’s ability to get left-handed and right-handed batters out is a trait the Rays covet in late inning relievers; couple that with his above-average stuff and Crain could be a closer candidate at the right price.

The other name mentioned, Kevin Gregg, is a proven closer. In fact, Gregg’s 122 saves since 2007 ranks 11th in all of baseball. As the Chicago Cubs closer in 2009, he posted an ugly 4.72 ERA. Meanwhile, his peripheral stats suggested it was one of his better seasons.

His strikeouts per nine innings (K/9) of 9.31 was one-tenth away from his career high. His 3.93 walks per nine innings (BB/9) was his lowest rate since becoming a full-time closer. The one category he took a beating in was home runs allowed. He allowed nearly two home runs per nine innings (1.70 HR/9). A whopping 15.3% of flyballs hit against him left the yard (his career average is 8.3%). This unsustainable rate made Gregg a prime candidate for positive regression in 2010; that’s exactly what happened.

Gregg signed on with the Blue Jays in the offseason and won the closer battle in spring training. In 63 games, he posted a 3.51 ERA and saved 37 games. His 8.85 K/9 was strong; however, his 4.58 BB/9 was a bit high. His insane home run rate from 2009 dropped drastically. He surrendered less than one home run per nine innings (0.61 HR/9) and saw just 6.1% of flyballs hit off him clear the fence. He was pretty much the same pitcher he was in 2009 with the benefit of decent luck.

The fact that he performed well in the American League East should only make him more attractive to the Rays. Another point of attraction could be Rays’ Manager Joe Maddon. From 2003-2006, Gregg pitched out of the Los Angeles Angels’ bullpen- including three years when Maddon served as the team’s bench coach.

Like Crain, Gregg is a Type-B free agent and the Rays are free to sign him without giving up anything except money and a roster spot. Also like Crain, the Rays could use the allure of save opportunities to their advantage in negotiations. With other teams involved, Tampa Bay will not get in a bidding war for either. That said, the chance to close games for one of the premier AL teams should help.

At the very least, we are seeing signs of the Rays waking up from their offseason slumber right as the winter meetings are set to begin next Monday.