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Position Battles: Rays Closer

The Rays had some work to do this offseason after losing six key relievers to free agency, including All-Star closer Rafael Soriano and setup men Joaquin Benoit and Grant Balfour. Here we are just a few days before pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training and their bullpen outlook remains questionable, to say the least. While they've brought in plenty of candidates to fill the vacancies, the team is without a clear-cut closer and Manager Joe Maddon recently floated the idea of going into the season with a closer-by-committee if no one claims the job in Spring Training. Probably not a good sign for a team that will be trying to defend their AL East crown. Let's take a look at the top candidates.

Kyle Farnsworth vs Joel Peralta vs J.P. Howell vs Jake McGee vs Adam Russell

Tale of the Tape

Farnsworth:  34 years old, $2.6MM salary 2010 stats: 3-2, 3.34 ERA, 64.2 IP, 55 H, 19 BB, 61 K, 9 holds 2011 Outlook: Favorite to be closer

An intimidating figure on the mound and armed with a mid-90's fastball, the reality is that Farnsworth has never been a regular closer in twelve big league seasons. Throw out a career-high 16 saves in 2005 and the 6'4" right-hander has averaged just one save per season. Prior to 2010, he had an ERA of 4.36 or higher in five of his last six seasons. But last year may have been his best since 2005. Opposing batters had a .634 OPS against him with right-handers not having much of a chance at all (.538 OPS). Here lies what may be a problem, however, if the Rays are counting on him to close out games for them. According to Baseball-Reference, opposing batters were 18-for-55 (.327 BA) against him during high leverage situations in 2010 as opposed to 37-for-184 (.201 BA) in low-to-mid leverage situations. It was the same story in 2009. He should have another chance in 2011 to prove that he can get outs with the game on the line. 

Peralta: 34 years old, $900K salary 2010 stats: 1-0, 2.02 ERA, 49 IP, 30 H, 9 BB, 49 K, 9 holds 2011 Outlook: Underdog to be closer, could get some save opportunities

It's hard to say why Peralta had his best big league season at age 34 or if his success will continue in 2011. A quick look at his FanGraphs player page shows that the right-hander used a 91 MPH fastball, curveball, and splitter to hold opponents to a .170 BA in 2010. Throughout his first few big league seasons, he threw as many as six different pitches. Maybe it's a case of Peralta focusing on his best pitches and scrapping the others. If that's all it was, it sure seems to have worked. Unlike Farnsworth, Peralta's numbers in high leverage situations were stellar. While he has just 2 big league saves on his resume, he saved 20 games in Triple-A last season, the fourth time he has done so in his minor league career. 

Howell: 27 years old, $1.1MM salary 2010 stats: Did Not Play 2009 stats: 7-5, 2.84 ERA, 66.2 IP, 47 H, 33 BB, 79 K, 17 Sv 2011 Outlook: Questionable for start of season (recovery from shoulder surgery); unlikely to be closer upon return but could earn job soon after

There might not be a competition at all if Howell hadn't missed the entire 2010 season recovering from shoulder surgery. After posting a 6.34 ERA in 33 starts over his first three big league seasons, Howell was moved to the 'pen in 2008 where he was 6-1 with a 2.22 ERA and 14 holds in 64 relief appearances. A year later, he saved 17 games with a 2.84 ERA in 69 games. Despite a mid-80's fastball, the left-hander has 9.9 K/9 as a reliever. His knuckle-curve and change up can be devastating on hitters. If he can show the same command of his arsenal once he returns to action (he's expected to return shortly after the start of the season), it might not be long before he's closing out games for the Rays again.  

McGee: 24 years old, est. $424K salary 2010 stats: 4-8, 3.07 ERA, 105.2 IP, 90 H, 36 BB, 127 K, Sv in 30 games (AAA/AA) 2011 Outlook: Underdog to be closer

The 24 year-old lefty was a starting pitcher for Double-A Montgomery in early August when he got the call to Triple-A Durham. With plenty of rotation depth in Tampa Bay, McGee was moved to the bullpen in anticipation of a late-season call-up. In his first relief appearance for Durham, he struck out five of six hitters in two perfect innings. Just over a month later, he was pitching out of the Rays' bullpen. While his big league stint was brief (5 IP, ER, 2 H, 3 BB, 6 K in 8 relief appearances), he was impressive enough that he goes into 2011 with a good shot to win a spot on the big league roster. His fastball-slider combo gives him closer potential but his lack of experience makes him a long shot to win the job out of Spring Training. 

Russell: 27 years old, est. $424K salary 2010 stats: 4-9, 4.88 ERA, 51.2 IP, 58 H, 32 BB, 51 K, 14 Sv (AAA) 2011 Outlook: Long shot to be closer

Like Farnsworth, Russell looks the part of closer. The 6'8" right-hander throws in the mid-90's and saved 14 games for Triple-A Portland in 2010. But his 10.1 H/9 and 5.6 BB/9 in the minors last year show that he's far from being a big league closer, let alone a middle reliever, at this point in his career. So why include him on this list? Sometimes, a slight mechanical adjustment can make a big difference. Working with a new pitching coach can sometimes do the trick. Out of options and one of the key pieces acquired in the Jason Bartlett deal this offseason, his spot on the roster appears to be secure. So the fact that he can focus more on making adjustments and less on results gives him a chance to take a big step forward this spring.

Final Word

If you ask me, the Rays are taking a huge risk by not bringing in a proven closer. The AL East might be the best division in baseball and it will be tough to rebound from a slow start. If Farnsworth and Peralta can hold down the fort until Howell returns, they should be fine. If not, you could see a new post daily on MLBTR addressing the Rays' search for a closer.

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