ST. PETERSBURG -- Tampa Bay's 2012 bullpen might have been the best in team history. Now the Rays' brass must cobble together a 'pen with what remains from that extraordinary group.
Last year's bullpen led the American League with a 2.88 ERA and held opposing batters to a .208 batting average. That gave the Rays the lowest ERA by an AL team since the 2005 Indians (2.80) and lowest opposing average by any Major League bullpen since the 2003 Dodgers (.207).
Looking toward 2013, the Rays have three solid members set to return in Fernando Rodney, Jake McGee and Joel Peralta.
"Good to have Fernando and Joel back," pitching coach Jim Hickey said. "That kind of solidifies the eighth and ninth innings. It's nice to know at this stage who is going to cover the back of the game for the most part. Obviously, Jake McGee is back and a year older and a year wiser and a year more experienced, so I expect him to be very good."
Left-hander Cesar Ramos is another almost certain member based on the fact the Rays like him and he's out of options. Other internal candidates include Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke and Dane Delarosa.
"Cesar Ramos is certainly a capable guy," Hickey said. "He's a guy a lot like J.P. Howell -- he can face the left-handers and the right-handers. He's not just going to be lefty-lefty type of guy. So I'm very comfortable with that as well."
Meanwhile, the status of free agents Howell and Kyle Farnsworth remain up in the air.
"The only guy that's gone with certainty is Burke Badenhop, because he's been traded," Hickey said. "But from what I understand, there's still a possibility that Farnsworth would be back and even J.P. Howell is a possibility. Although I would think J.P.'s kind of a little bit of a stretch just because of the market for left-handed relief pitchers."
Specifically, Randy Choate signing a three-year, $7.5 million deal with the Cardinals, which would seem to put Howell in a similar category. However, Howell has said anything was possible with the Rays "if it makes sense."
Two harsh questions the bullpen must face are: Can Rodney come anywhere near repeating his amazing 2012 season, when he set a Major League record for relievers (with a minimum of 50 innings pitched) by posting a 0.61 ERA? And what effect will losing starter James Shields and his 200-plus innings have on the bullpen?
"My expectations are not that [Rodney is] going to repeat the 2012 season because that was an historic season," Hickey said. "Maybe the best relief season in the history of the game. So I don't expect him to do that. We talk about this all the time as well. I would be happy if you told me right now that Fernando would go out there and do the job that you send him out to do nine times out of 10.
"If you send him out there to convert, and it's not necessarily saves, because it's not always a save situation, if he can go out there and he can do the job you sent him to do 90 percent of the time, I would be very happy with that."
Hickey allowed that everybody might need to temper their expectations for Rodney "a bit."
"Because if this guy goes out and saves 42 out of 47 with a 1.80 ERA, it might sound kind of disappointing, but I think I'd sign up for that right now," Hickey said.
Meanwhile Shields, who was traded to the Royals last week, has been a longtime friend of the bullpen with his six consecutive 200-inning seasons. Most nights when the right-hander took the mound, he could be counted upon to pitch seven-plus innings. By doing so, that allowed the bullpen to rest. In addition, it enabled manager Joe Maddon to mix and match the right reliever to a situation, thereby enhancing that reliever's chances to succeed.
David Price should still be counted upon to get 200 innings, but the club will need a group effort by the other starters to contribute more innings to overcome Shields' loss. In addition, the Rays might need to rely more on their long man than they have in recent seasons. Ramos could fit that bill as well as veteran starter/reliever Roberto Hernandez, who is reportedly close to signing a deal with Tampa Bay.
No doubt the club will sign additional veteran relievers before Spring Training. Rays fans have grown accustomed to such solid signings as Joaquin Benoit, Juan Cruz, Choate, Troy Percival and Rodney, to name a few.
"We always talk about in order to be good, you have to have three or four guys that you trust at the end of the game at the higher leveraged innings, and we certainly have that," Hickey said. "So I'm pretty comfortable where we're at right now."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com.