Tampa Bay Rays Bullpen Grade: B
Tampa Bay has unquestionable depth in the middle relief, with JP Howell and deadline acquisition Chad Bradford coming off of the best seasons of their careers. Grant Balfour also exploded onto the scene with 82 strikeouts in only 58.1 innings pitched, as well as a 0.89 WHIP.
Even Dan Wheeler was finally able to put together a solid season in the American League. Wheeler, Bradford, and recent free-agent signing Brian Shouse will provide an important veteran presence within a very young pitching staff.
Another interesting dynamic affecting the bullpen is the starting rotation’s tendency to not go deep into games. Scott Kazmir, Matt Garza, and Andy Sonnanstine combined to leave 40 starts before the end of the sixth inning in 2008. Adding a rookie to the rotation in David Price will only add to this problem. That is a lot of extra innings for a bullpen to throw without breaking down.
The Rays also have no dependable option for the ninth inning. If any baseball fans question the importance of the closer role, ask the Philadelphia Phillies if they could have won it all without Brad Lidge last season.
Wheeler was exposed down the stretch in pressure situations, blowing six games from the end of August through October. He was later replaced by rookie David Price in the ALCS, and Price’s move to the starting rotation in 2009 will eliminate their best closer option.
Troy Percival’s age and recent injury history, coupled with Balfour’s nearly 5.00 ERA in the postseason, leave the Rays without a proven stopper at the end of games. Tampa Bay can't be given a higher bullpen rating than the Red Sox and Yankees without this necessity. However, if a talented young flamethrower like Balfour finds a way to step up, the Rays will be in good shape.
Boston Red Sox Bullpen Grade: A-
The Red Sox also have the luxury of dependable middle relief, especially with the emergence of Manny Delcarmen. Boston has excellent balance in their bullpen, adding two solid lefties into the equation with Hideki Okajima and Javier Lopez. Okajima further adds to their versatility with his ability to frustrate right-handers with his changeup.
The Sox were also able to add Ramon Ramirez this offseason via a trade with the Royals. He is coming off of a breakout year, but it remains to be seen if he can adapt to the daily pressures of Red Sox Nation.
Depending on how Boston fills out the fifth spot in its rotation, they could also be adding two rising stars into the bullpen mix with Justin Masterson and Michael Bowden. Both blessed with electric stuff, these two could become the key wildcards to watch.
What sets Boston far apart from Tampa Bay is that it also possesses Jonathan Papelbon, a lights-out closer with ice water in his veins. It is an incredible advantage to have the ability to shorten games, and to know that a win is secured before the ninth inning begins in most cases.
Papelbon has recorded 113 saves and only 14 blown saves in his three full seasons as closer. His intensity and mean streak, whether it irritates you or not, is what makes him so effective at his craft.
New York Yankees Bullpen Grade: B+
When discussing the Yankees' bullpen situation, where else can you start but with Mariano Rivera? Some fans worried that he was slowing down after the worst statistical season of his career in 2007.
Rivera responded with arguably his best season in 2008, and reclaimed his place atop the closer world. A remarkable 13-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and 0.67 WHIP said it all. I, for one, am completely unconcerned about a recovery from routine arthroscopic surgery. He pitched the year of his life through pain, and will return in great shape thanks to his work ethic.
The Yankees’ issues lie in the middle relief. A strength became a question mark with Joba Chamberlain’s permanent switch into the starting rotation. They will have to rely heavily on Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, and the re-signed Damaso Marte.
Veras and Ramirez both have fantastic stuff, and can get out left-handed hitters as well as right-handers, which is a key to being a successful reliever. Both do have issues finding the strike zone from time to time, and will have to improve in that area to earn the setup role.
Marte is an interesting debate. Will he be able to pitch as consistently in 2009 as he did down the stretch in 2008? I am confident that Marte, now comfortable in the bright lights of New York, will build on the mere two runs he allowed in 16 appearances to finish the season.
The emergence of Brian Bruney and Phil Coke will help to ease the burden, and if they can perform anywhere near as well as they did last year, the Yankees will have excellent bullpen depth. Minor leaguers Mark Melancon and Humberto Sanchez could burst onto the scene in the second half if needed, but the winner of the setup role is the true key to the Yankees’ bullpen success in 2009.