This offseason it was clear that Andrew Friedman and the Tampa Bay Rays had some serious holes in the bullpen that needed to be addressed.
In fact, the entire bullpen was one big, gaping hole.
The Rays lost no fewer than seven relievers from their AL East Division-winning squad.
Closer Rafael Soriano, setup men Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour, lefty specialist Randy Choate and middle relievers Dan Wheeler, Lance Cormier and Chad Qualls were all lost to free agency or were not offered salary arbitration.
Every baseball pundit agreed—if the Rays had any shot at contending in 2011, Friedman and company were going to have to work some magic to replace all of the arms that had been lost.
While the jury is still out on 2011, thus far the results have been impressive
While the Rays offseason was seemingly low-key, the front office has shrewdly put together a very productive bullpen on a shoestring budget.
Going into play on Tuesday, the Rays bullpen is in the top 10 in the Majors statistically. This is pretty impressive considering that it was projected to be the most glaring weakness on the club.
Here is how the 2011 Rays bullpen has performed so far and how the Rays front office acquired each player.
Rookie Jake McGee is considered the closer of the future for the Rays.
Since moving to the bullpen, he has been able to dial up his fastball into the 95-96 mph range. He also has a nice repertoire of secondary pitches, including a plus slurve. To top it all off, he is a left-hander.
That sounds like the makings of a future dominant closer. In fact, many scouts agree that McGee is the best relief pitcher prospect in baseball.
He was recently demoted to AAA Durham to get more work, and it is clear that the Rays want him to make some adjustments while he is in the minors. His fastball velocity has been mysteriously absent at times, which is very troubling. Despite his recent issues, though, he remains a huge talent.
The tall lefty will be a key cog in the back end of the Rays bullpen for years to come. We will be seeing a lot more from Jake McGee in 2011 and beyond.
2011 Stats: 11 G, 7 IP, 5.14 ERA, 2.00 WHIP, 2 K
Acquired: Drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the fifth round of the 2004 amateur draft
Gomes was just recalled on Monday from AAA Durham, taking the roster spot of Sunday's spot starter Alex Cobb. He is essentially replacing McGee in the bullpen for the time being.
He has been fantastic so far in 2011 for the Durham Bulls.
In 11 appearances he has a sparkling 1.35 ERA and has struck out 22 hitters in 13.1 innings. He was serving as the closer for the Bulls, where he had converted six save opportunities.
In 2010, pitching for the AA San Antonio Missions in the San Diego Padres organization, Gomes had a whopping 11.6 K/9 to go along with a 1.87 ERA. In 2009 he was just as impressive, striking out 100 hitters as a middle reliever.
Not bad for a guy who was only drafted in the 17th round.
Gomes features a mid-90s fastball, a very good splitter and a slider. He has the potential to be a dominant late-inning reliever for many years to come.
It will be interesting to see how Gomes adjusts to big-league hitters. Joe Maddon is likely to bring him into low-pressure situations to begin with.
Acquired: Traded by the San Diego Padres with Cole Figueroa (minors), Cesar Ramos and Adam Russell to the Tampa Bay Rays for Jason Bartlett and player to be named
It is hard to quantify Sonnanstine's importance to the Rays bullpen statistically. A cursory look at his career numbers won't leave your mouth agape. But he may be the most important reliever in the Rays pen.
As the long reliever on the staff, he often pitches in garbage time. As unglamorous as that is, it allows Maddon the luxury of resting everyone else in the bullpen during blowouts.
Sonnanstine is also the go-to guy if a spot start is needed.
He has had success in the majors as a starter. He was part of the rotation in 2008 when the Rays went to the World Series, and he collected 13 victories.
Not blessed with the best of stuff, Sonnanstine relies upon command and location of his pitches to get hitters out.
Every team needs a guy like Sonnanstine on its staff.
2011 Stats: 5 G, 9.1 IP, 2.89 ERA, 1.07 WHIP, 3 K
Acquired: Drafted by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays in the 13th round of the 2004 amateur draft
Cesar Ramos is getting his first extended look in the major leagues after spending parts of the last two seasons with the San Diego Padres.
Rays scouts are high on Ramos, who has a four-pitch repertoire. He doesn't have overpowering stuff but displays good command and composure on the mound.
Maddon seems to still be working on more clearly defining his role.
With McGee's demotion, Ramos remains the lone lefty in the Rays bullpen.
A former roommate of Evan Longoria at Long Beach State, Ramos is a former first-round pick.
2011 Stats: 12 G, 7.2 IP, 5.87 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 5 K
Acquired: Traded by the San Diego Padres with Brandon Gomes (minors), Cole Figueroa (minors) and Adam Russell to the Tampa Bay Rays for Jason Bartlett and player to be named
Adam Russell is an imposing presence on the mound, measuring in at 6'8" inches and 255 pounds.
The right-hander has struggled some with his control out of the gate but has a good low 90s fastball and an above-average curveball.
Russell has pitched primarily as a starter in the minor leagues but has made the transition to the bullpen quite well.
Russell, Cesar Ramos and Brandon Gomes were all acquired in the Jason Bartlett deal. That represents nearly half of the Rays' current bullpen.This illustrates Andrew Friedman's mastery at making deals. Getting three major-league relievers for an average shortstop is true value.
2011 Stats: 12 G, 10.2 IP, 2.53 ERA, 1.50 WHIP, 4 K
Acquired: Traded by the San Diego Padres with Brandon Gomes (minors), Cole Figueroa (minors) and Cesar Ramos to the Tampa Bay Rays for Jason Bartlett and player to be named
Juan Cruz is a major-league veteran of 10 years. He pitched briefly with the Kansas City Royals in 2010 before succumbing to a shoulder injury that required season-ending surgery.
Seemingly back in good health, he made the squad out of spring training after only allowing a lone run in 10 innings.
Cruz has very good stuff. He has an above-average fastball and nice break on his slider. His problem has always been control, as evidenced by his career 4.8 BB/9. He has frustrated many a manager with this and has had a pedestrian career despite his enormous talent.
When he harnesses his pitches, though, he can make hitters swing and miss. Cruz owns an impressive 9.1 K/9 rate over his career, which can make him very dangerous out of the pen.
He has quietly become one of the Rays' more reliable arms in recent weeks, and Maddon is slowly working him into more meaningful game situations.
If his shoulder is sound and he can keep his command in check, he could be a real find for the Rays at the back end of the bullpen.
2011 Stats: 12 G, 11 IP, 2.45 ERA, 0.91 WHIP, 10 K
Acquired: Signed as a free agent by the Tampa Bay Rays on Feb. 3, 2011 ($850,000)
Joel Peralta had a career year last season for the Washington Nationals yet amazingly was non-tendered by the club.
In 49 innings he allowed only 30 hits and had a microscopic WHIP of 0.80 to go along with 2.02 ERA.
These numbers did not go unnoticed by the Rays brass, and Andrew Friedman made Peralta his first free agent signing of the offseason.
Rays manager Joe Maddon is well familiar with Peralta from their days together in the Angels organization. He loves his tenacity on the mound and calls him "El Campeon."
This bodes well for the Rays, as one of Maddon's strengths as a manager is bringing out the most in his players. With their past track record together, Peralta and Maddon seem to be clicking.
The 34-year-old right-hander has settled in nicely as the team's primary setup guy. He has a high fly-ball rate (55.6 percent in 2010) but also held right-handed hitters to a .145 average last season.
With left-hander J.P. Howell due back in a few weeks, the Rays should have a very good one-two punch setting up Kyle Farnsworth going forward.
2011 Stats: 14 G, 13.1 IP, 2.70 ERA, 0.90 WHIP, 13 K
Acquired: Signed as a free agent by the Tampa Bay Rays on Dec. 17, 2010 ($925,000)
Kyle Farnsworth has had several chances to close in years past but has been unable to capitalize on those opportunities. He is an imposing presence on the mound but is more famous for his wrestling moves than his pitching. Like Juan Cruz, he has been somewhat of an enigma to scouts and managers alike.
The knock on him as been that his mid 90s fastball is too straight. But in recent years he has added a two-seamer and a cutter to his arsenal, and this seems to have made him a more effective pitcher.
While the Rays went into the season using a closer-by-committee approach, Farnsworth has clearly earned the role outright. His career save percentage is troubling, as coming into the season he had saved less than 45 percent of his chances despite having 27 career saves.
Still with his new pitches and a new approach on the mound, Farnsworth's career has been on the upswing. Talented reclamation projects seem to come to Tampa Bay and flourish under Joe Maddon, so it isn't hard to project continued success for Farnsworth in the ninth inning.
It remains to be seen if he will hold down the closer's role for the entire season, but there is no doubt that he will have to play a prominent role in the bullpen for the Rays to have a shot at contending for their second straight AL east crown.
2011 Stats: 12 G, 10 IP, 0.90 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 5 K, 5 SV
Acquired: Signed as a free agent with the Tampa Bay Rays on Jan. 15, 2011 ($3.3 million)
J.P. Howell is the X-factor in the Rays bullpen for 2011. Currently on a rehab assignment after missing all of 2010 with shoulder surgery, Howell's return could make a good Rays bullpen into an excellent one.
It is hard to know if he will be able to return to the form he had in 2008-09, when he was amongst the best relievers in the game.
It is even harder to project how Maddon will use him. Will he slowly be worked into a more prominent role? Or will Maddon instantly use him in high-leverage situations?
With Farnsworth's questionable track record as a closer, it wouldn't be surprising to see Howell given another shot at closing for the Rays. No matter what his role ends up being, there is no doubt that Howell's return to the mound was included in Andrew Friedman's thought process when building this year's pen.
The Rays bullpen is filled with talented youngsters, veterans who are getting second chances and pitchers coming off arm injuries. It was assembled on a tight budget, and very few people had high expectations for this group. Yet a month into the season, they are performing better than expected and appear to be underrated.
Given the Rays propensity to unearth gems for their bullpen, would anybody really be surprised if this unheralded group ended up being one of the league's best by season's end?