Rays not panicking about bullpen
Maddon confident club will assemble strong relief corps
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Optimism became the order of the day when manager Joe Maddon and executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman addressed the media during a Tuesday afternoon gathering under sun-baked skies at Charlotte Sports Park.
"There are so many good things already in place [for the Rays], that's where all the optimism lies," said Maddon.
Friedman, who is responsible for assembling the team, expanded on the good things in place for the defending American League East champions.
"On the run-scoring side of things, I think we're going to be a good offensive team that's well balanced, disciplined, [with] good foot speed," Friedman said. "And on the run-prevention side, our starting pitching is going to be really good."
Friedman then identified the elephant in the room: "And it's going to come down to our bullpen."
Maddon also addressed the bullpen, but panic never entered the picture as he spoke of what must be done to "reestablish the best bullpen in the league." And in looking toward the future, the Rays' manager spoke of the past.
"Last year at this time when that bullpen broke [from Spring Training], there was no way you could have told us that that was going to be the best bullpen in the American League," Maddon said. "Rafael [Soriano] pitched six innings. [Joaquin Benoit] went back to Triple-A. [Grant] Balfour was throwing 89 mph. Randy Choate was a situational left-hander. Danny Wheeler was a nice, functional right-hander there. ... It's not like you left Spring Training thinking this team would lead the American League in ERA, etc.
"So I want to believe that we have some really good arms. Andrew has compiled some really good arms and we're going to go with them right now. And during the course of this camp, we're going to try and set them up properly going into the season and see what happens. So I see our biggest obstacle to overcome regarding repeating would be getting this bullpen back in order quickly."
Unlike last spring, the Rays do not have a clear-cut candidate to be the team's closer, a role filled so well by Soriano.
"It's always nice [to have a closer]," Maddon said. "I mean, you saw us last year when you had that one guy to pitch the ninth inning and you know he's going to pitch the ninth inning. It's so much easier to dole out the other innings."
Without a closer in place, Maddon and company will watch carefully to see if any of the team's bullpen members step forward to take the job, or they will try something else.
"If somebody shows they want that particular job and they're able to do it, listen I'd be the happiest guy in the world to say so-and-so is going to be our closer, because it does make game-planning that much easier," Maddon said. "Having said that, I'm going into the inning pretty much expecting to go committee-wise, and I'm not concerned about that. It's a different way."
By the time the Rays leave Port Charlotte this spring, a semblance of a bullpen will be in place. However, the chances of that group holding down the fort all season are remote at best.
"You're going to have your seven guys at the end of Spring Training, just like last year again," said Maddon, reiterating that Benoit, who dominated out of the bullpen last season, wasn't even on the team at the beginning of the 2010 season.
"My point is you're going to make your best guess out of this Spring Training," Maddon said. "You're going to make your best guess when you have to open the season. We know we're going to be sending guys back who we feel will help us. ... The bullpen that breaks here will earn that opportunity by what they do here. ... It's a little bit of a fluid situation."
While many of Tampa Bay's most popular players are gone, most notably Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, Maddon pointed out there still are many reasons for fans to come out and watch the Rays.
"We're very affable," Maddon smiled. "We like to talk to everybody. We sign autographs. You got to get to know these new guys. There's a lot of talent in this camp."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.