There is good news and bad news for the Tampa Bay Rays. Most agree that there is much more bad news, considering that the Rays lost four pitchers who accounted for 226.1 of the Rays 454 relief innings: Rafael Soriano, Joaquin Benoit, Dan Wheeler, and Grant Belfour.
This is a sharp blow for a team that won the AL East last year, based almost solely on strong pitching and dominant defense.
Rafael Soriano led the AL in saves. Joaquin Benoit had a 7:1 strikeout to walk ratio for 2010. Dan Wheeler's ERA has been between 2.21 and 3.35, not counting an off-year in 2007. Balfour posted a 2.28 ERA and 1.08 WHIP last season.
Now for the good news:
The loss of Rafael Soriano will surely affect the Rays more than the loss of the other pitchers. Soriano not only led the AL in saves but also had a save percentage of 93.8 percent.
The Rays will likely counter the loss of Soriano using a close-by-committee system for the early part of the year. Veteran Kyle Farnsworth was among the 2011 signees that may get a chance to close for the Rays. The feisty Farnsworth logged 64.2 innings last year and boasted a 3.34 ERA with 1.14 WHIP.
Farnsworth has thrown three scoreless innings this spring, striking out four and allowing only one hit. Although he may be better suited as a set-up pitcher, he seems to have the experience and the numbers to get the closer role, at least early in the season.
Once the Rays have developed or obtained a full-time closer, expect Farnsworth to become a set-up man and middle reliever.
Left-handed + 97 mph fastball = closer.
At least according to the math of Tampa Fans.
Jake McGee has been the buzz around town as of late and is on the shortlist for full-time closers. Manager Joe Maddon is unsure whether McGee is ready for the closer role yet, but has the rookie working on his slider to be an effective second pitch.
"Jake is definitely part of the mix," said Maddon. "He's great talent and I can see him closing for us, but you really have to proceed with caution on a young kid like that...See how he reacts and uses his pitches. The ninth inning at Yankee Stadium and Fenway Park is a little bit different."
This being said, McGee made his major league debut against the Yankees, striking out Derek Jeter for his first major league strikeout. He has had an impressive spring training thus far, with an ERA 1.80 and a WHIP of 1.00.
Joaquin Benoit had a 1.34 ERA and a 0.68 WHIP for 2010 as Soriano's set-up man. Benoit will be sorely missed by Tampa fans.
Joel Peralta has some very big shoes to fill, but the veteran should come through for the Rays.
Peralta logged a 2.02 ERA in 2010 and had 0.80 WHIP as a middle reliever for the Nationals. With the help of pitching coach Jim Hickey, these numbers should improve for 2011. Peralta is a legitimate reliever that features a 91 mph fastball, a splitter, and a curve.
Peralta will be a good situational man for the Rays and will do well within the organization, thanks to his work-ethic and perseverance.
J.P. Howell was one of the main reasons the Rays had a pennant run in 2008. His overuse in 2009 led to a shoulder injury that ended up costing him his 2010 season.
Howell is expected to return sometime in late May. Howell had 17 saves in 2009 and could see save situations by the second half of the season. However, Howell is a finesse pitcher who relies almost solely on off-speed pitching.
Howell is going to have to show Maddon and the Rays pitching staff that he has not lost speed from his low to mid-80's fastball and that his other pitches are still breaking hard.
Expect Howell to be used in situation save opportunities and as a set-up man for McGee.
The loss of Grant Belfour should only affect the Rays in a positive way if Andy Sonnanstine can carry a little more load than last season and prove to be a little less hittable.
Belfour was probably one of the bigger disappointments of 2010, given that he only pitched 55.1 innings, because of his lack of a positive response to a heavy workload.
Sonnanstine is the opposite. A true workhorse, Sonnanstine pitched 81.0 innings in 2010 and still started from time to time. Sonnanstine is a reliever with the potential to be a sixth starter if the situation demands it, however his 2010 ERA of 4.44 leaves much to be desired. Sonnanstine will basically hold the wounds closed until the Rays younger talent can mature enough to take over.
Lefty Cesar Ramos has most likely earned a spot as a reliever for the Rays. Ramos has shown moments of brilliance over the last season, but needs to find some consistency to be a go-to guy.
Ramos had a 2009 season in which his ERA was 3.07 over five games, with two starts. This is considered a pretty solid rookie season. However, his 2010 season was much worse, with Ramos boasting a 11.88 ERA over the course of 14 games. Ramos seems to have settled a bit in spring training, but still has a 3.60 ERA over five innings.
Expect Ramos to be a situational reliever (such as situations where the Rays are up by five-plus runs).
This replacement may best summarize the Rays troubles. Just look at the career stat comparison between Cruz and Wheeler.
ERA: Cruz - 4.15, Wheeler - 3.84
WHIP: Cruz - 1.40, Wheeler - 1.22
K's: Cruz - 580, Wheeler - 514
BB: Cruz - 299, Wheeler - 179
All in all, Cruz is a good replacement for the veteran Wheeler. Wheeler numbers are little better, but Cruz, with a little luck and some good coaching, will be fine for the Rays. Exactly like the rest of the bullpen.