Rays confident in unconventional bullpen

March 30th, 2022

SARASOTA, Fla. -- While in the bullpen, Rays relievers often do their best to play manager and pitching coach. They analyze game situations and opposing lineups. They try to project who might line up against which hitters at which parts of the game. They sit and they wait for the phone to ring.

Because, when the call comes down from the dugout, any one of them might be asked to answer. Such is life in a Rays bullpen with no designated closer, no low-leverage relievers and no shortage of impact arms capable of doing just about anything.

Navigating through a bunch of injuries and workload concerns last season, the Rays had a Major League-record 14 pitchers with at least one save. Diego Castillo led the team with 14 saves, and he was traded in July; nobody else had more than eight. All-Star right-hander  led the team with 57 appearances while logging a 1.88 ERA, and his performance perfectly represented the fluidity of Tampa Bay’s bullpen: He pitched in every inning from the first through the 11th.

They’ll have to be flexible again this season, especially after receiving official word Wednesday that high-leverage reliever  will be shut down from throwing for at least six weeks. The Rays braced for bad news when Fairbanks walked off the mound Sunday afternoon with tightness in his right lat muscle, and a second opinion on Wednesday confirmed that the right-hander sustained a 50 percent tear in the muscle.

Fairbanks won’t require surgery, but the earliest he could return -- between the time he’ll be shut down and an equally long build-up to game action -- is likely three months from now.

“Everyone knows what Pete’s capable of and what kind of contributor he is to the bullpen and the success that our bullpen’s had in the last couple years, so it’s a huge loss,” Kittredge said. “At the same time, we have so many good guys that are going to step in and fill in the role in his absence. I’m excited for their opportunity.”

The “next man up” mantra is a cliché, but as Kittredge noted, it’s a cliché for a reason. And the Rays have lived it about as often as any club recently, constantly turning over their bullpen but consistently producing good results. Last year, Rays relievers led the American League with a 3.23 ERA.

“That’s just kind of the nature of the bullpen. Guys miss time, and someone’s got to step up,” Kittredge said. “I think we’re well-equipped to have someone come in and fill his shoes. You’re not replacing Pete Fairbanks, but guys that are really good that are going to do what they do well to fill the void.”

Kittredge is a safe bet to handle the biggest spots early on this season, but indeed, nearly everyone else competing for a roster spot has pitched in high-leverage situations before.

“That's the fun part of our ‘pen. That's why I think we're probably [the bullpen with] the most depth in the league, because anybody can pitch at any moment,” right-hander said. “We don't have low-leverage guys. There aren’t guys that go in and eat innings. We always feel like we're in every game, and that's why everyone's high-leverage.”

Many teams still operate with a traditional bullpen philosophy. Closers pitch the ninth inning in save situations, setup relievers have designated innings in front of the closer and so on. Meanwhile, the Rays have found as much success as anybody without adhering to tradition.

Relievers are deployed based on leverage and matchups more often than the inning. They can open games or close them. This year, half of their Opening Day bullpen should be capable of working multiple innings. And they’ve all bought in on a bullpen with no old-fashioned roles.

“I think it trickles year to year from the pitchers that have been here, have spent one season or multiple seasons [with the Rays], and they help with the message to the new guys,” manager Kevin Cash said. “We all work really hard to give that [communication] that we're going to prioritize what we think is the best matchup in that game to win that game. That doesn't always work, but they embrace it as well as we can ever ask.”

The Rays’ bullpen usage is a product of their strategy, yes, but also a testament to their depth. Last season, they had 13 relievers work at least 15 innings while posting an adjusted ERA+ of 110 or better despite spending most of the year without Nick Anderson, their best reliever in 2020. They picked up relievers like Feyereisen and in midseason trades, for instance, and almost immediately thrust them into big late-inning roles.

“It kind of gives you momentum and confidence, knowing that they believe in you, so you can trust yourself out there,” Wisler said. “The stuff that they have over here and the depth of arms that they have … and what they do top to bottom is pretty impressive.”