Experience, matchups are keys to bullpen success
Anchored by veteran Rodney, Rays' bullpen once again looks poised for strong season
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Putting out fires is not for the faint of heart.
This fact probably explains why the Rays like to construct their bullpen out of guys who have been around the block.
Seemingly, the Rays head into every offseason believing that they will have to cobble together a new bullpen by the time the team reports to Port Charlotte for Spring Training. Normally, the candidates to become Rays firemen have considerable wear on their tires.
Nevertheless, the Rays always seem to assemble a solid group.
In 2012, the group led the American League with a 2.88 ERA and a .208 opposing batting average. The bullpen had a 1.08 WHIP, the ninth lowest in the last 90 years. A significant reason for that was Fernando Rodney, who turned into the team's closer after two unproductive seasons with the Angels.
Rodney had been off of most team's radars, but the Rays saw something special in the hard-throwing veteran right-hander, so they brought him to camp. When 2011 closer Kyle Farnsworth started the season on the disabled list, Rodney assumed the role of closer and ran with it, setting the all-time Major League record for a reliever by posting a 0.60 ERA. In addition, he notched a team-record 48 saves.
"We have a tremendous amount of respect for putting together a bullpen and just the cyclicality of bullpens year to year and the difficulty of doing it," said Andrew Friedman, Rays executive vice president of baseball operations. "And while we've had some past success, I think every Opening Day, we're extremely nervous about our bullpen. It's kind of a simple approach for us. There are certain things that we look for in relievers. It's as much about putting together a group of guys that complement each other, that give us different looks, that allow us to accomplish different things throughout a game."
Unlike seasons past, the Rays did not lose a lot of pieces from the previous year's bullpen heading into the 2013 season. That hasn't kept them from looking for ways to improve.
"It's almost like the more success our bullpen has, the more we're looking to change some parts of it the following year," Friedman said. "Whereas if our bullpen struggles in any one particular year, and the process was good in putting it together, I'd almost take our chances with the same bullpen the following year. They're just very cyclical by nature."
Given the history of veteran relievers who have joined the Rays, found a job, and thrived, the team's bullpen has become a much-desired destination for veteran relievers.
"Their history here -- there's been several veteran guys come in and contribute pretty big time," said Jamey Wright, a 17-year Major League veteran hoping to be that guy this season. "For me, it's an opportunity to come in and -- I'm not worried about making the team or doing anything -- I worried about getting myself ready to go for another season. And that's all I think about right now. If I throw the ball the way I know how, the way I'm capable of, there will be an opportunity here or somewhere else."
Farnsworth, 36, addressed what factors other than talent have allowed the Rays' bullpen to thrive.
"They let the guys go out there and just pitch," Farnsworth said. "They put them in situations where they think they will succeed and that carries over to the personal aspect of it as far as being confident -- having fun and not putting some of the stress on the wrong things.
"Everybody is going to make mistakes. Just go out there and do what you're capable of doing."
Joel Peralta, 36, pointed to the way the Rays put their relievers in favorable matchups.
"They are really big about matchups here," Peralta said. "They kind of know, they get information or trust us against certain hitters. For me, I know if they send me in there to face a certain hitter, they have confidence in me, and that gives me confidence."
In addition, the starting rotation's penchant for pitching deep into games has helped the bullpen be successful. When there are less innings to clean up by the bullpen, manager Joe Maddon is afforded the luxury of using different relievers for the matchups he wants.
Favoring older relievers is hardly a new concept for the simple fact that unlike other players, relievers seem to get better with age.
"I don't know what it is," Farnsworth said. "It's just one of those weird things I can't really explain. I know back when I was coming up I threw hard, and I felt like I could throw it past anybody. It worked for awhile, and it still does every now and then. But you realize that sometimes less is better. Instead of trying to strike everybody out, go with five pitches -- three ground balls -- and get out of there."
Peralta believes veteran relievers have learned how to handle taking their lumps.
"You're going to get hit every now and then," Peralta said. "Look at last year. I got off to one of my worst starts of my career. But the experience I had told me I would get better and I did. But I promise you, if it had been earlier in my career, I would not have been able to fix what was going on."
Younger guys do exist in the Rays' bullpen. Take Jake McGee, who, at the age of 26, is quickly becoming one of the more dominant relievers in the American League. The left-hander is quiet by nature, and to his credit, often listens to the wisdom that surrounds him every day.
"He does listen," Peralta said. "Last year we talked to him about attacking the hitters, because the stuff he has lets him go right at them. He did it, and he had a great year. So this year, he should be better. He can be one of the best lefties in the game this year, for sure."
When asked about the relievers he's been able to learn from over the years, McGee quickly rattled off the names of Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour, Randy Choate, Joaquin Benoit, Farnsworth and Peralta.
"It's huge to learn from all those veteran guys who have had so much success," McGee said.
If the season started today, Rodney would be the team's closer, Peralta, McGee and Farnsworth would serve as the setup guys, Cesar Ramos would be the extra left-hander, and the long man would come from the loser of the Jeff Niemann-Roberto Hernandez competition for a starter spot. That would leave one spot to be filled by the likes of Josh Lueke, Wright or Brandon Gomes.
"We have a lot of depth this year and can probably be better than last year," Peralta said. "That's pretty good because last year's bullpen was good."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.