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Rays relievers confident 'pen can be best in baseball

TAMPA, Fla. -- Joel Peralta didn't hold back when asked what he thought about the Rays' bullpen.

"On paper, it's got to be the best bullpen in the league," he said. "If everybody performs the way that we should, we have a lot of arms that can do good here, that can pitch against anybody. ... It's a great bullpen."

On paper, here's what the Rays have. Starting at the back end, Grant Balfour has returned to become the team's closer. Setting him up will be the likes of Heath Bell, Juan Carlos Oviedo, Jake McGee and Peralta. Then who knows who for the final two spots, but the selection will be made from a deep pool that contains Josh Lueke, Mark Lowe, and Brandon Gomes. If one wants to delve even deeper, there's Jeff Beliveau, C.J. Riefenhauser, Kirby Yates, Juan Sandoval, Steve Geltz and Sam Runion.

Rays manager Joe Maddon thought the team would have an above-average bullpen, and nothing he has seen thus far can convince him otherwise, even if Oviedo has yet to arrive due to his ongoing visa problem.

"We haven't even seen Oviedo yet," Maddon said. "Grant hasn't really pitched as well as he can. I really believe [he hasn't had his usual amount of adrenalin pumping just yet]. Once he gets going, the latter part of the game, you're going to see the numbers you're used to seeing.

"Oviedo's going to be very interesting. The reports are good that he's throwing the ball well, that kind of stuff. Jake is trying to put together this curveball as part of the package -- he's very interesting. Peralta is still really good. And then we just have to fill out the back side of it. Whether it's Lueke and Ramos and all these other guys, Mark Lowe has looked really good. So there's so much going on with this group."

Historically, Balfour has never been one to shine during Spring Training. He has compiled a 6.25 ERA over his past seven Spring Trainings. Ironically, his best preseason numbers (other than 2013 when he pitched just four innings) came in 2008 with the Rays when he was designated for assignment at the end of camp. Thus, Maddon's lack of concern for where Balfour stands on March 9.

Over the years, Balfour has been a member of some pretty solid bullpens, and even he's impressed with what the Rays have assembled.

"Looking at the names, it's great," Balfour said. "Shoot, you look at it, we're pretty stacked, you know. I like it a lot. You've got guys who can fit into all types of roles, guys who have been around a while that can pitch all different roles, which is nice to have. They have that experience. A bunch of lefties, righties, we have that mix."

Balfour offered a disclaimer since he is a "bullpen guy" before noting of this year's bullpen: "I see it as a backbone for us winning games. Help us win ballgames, especially the one-, two-run games. The game that you want to win that will make a difference at the end of the year that will get you into the playoffs."

McGee believes this year's bullpen is as "deep as it's been" since his arrival in 2010.

"We had a veteran group in 2010 -- we had [Joaquin] Benoit, Balfour, and [Rafael] Soriano," McGee said. "This year we have Balfour, Heath Bell and then Peralta can handle the seventh, eighth and ninth."

As far as roles go, McGee believes they will evolve as the season moves along.

"I think a lot of times what Joe likes to do is he'll see the lineup coming up in the sixth inning or seventh inning and base his decisions on that," McGee said. "I think we're going to be kind of fluctuating, not really have assigned innings other than Balfour throwing the ninth."

Gomes personifies the caliber of player competing for the final spots. He's spent parts of three seasons in the Major Leagues, all with the Rays. He's proven time and again that he's got the makeup and the stuff to be a solid bullpen performer, but he's a long shot this spring because he still has an option. That means the Rays can send him down to Triple-A Durham without having to chance losing him. Such a scenario adds overall depth. So, in theory, having an option will count against Gomes' chances of breaking camp with the team.

"Every year it's competitive since my first year here and, obviously, before then," Gomes said. "It's been a great bullpen -- they've put together an extremely talented group of guys. A lot of turnover, but they just keep replacing different guys. So for me, it's not really that different of a situation we're coming into, and I think it makes everybody better in the end."

Gomes added that he wouldn't want to be in any other kind of situation, because it boils down to the Rays having a quality bullpen and also a winning team.

Peralta made 80 appearances in 2013 and would be fine with his number of appearances going down slightly this season so he'll have plenty left in the tank for a postseason run -- a run he believes is possible for this year's team.

"The type of team we're going to have, we're going to be way better than last year," Peralta said. "We've got a lot of the same guys starting, the bullpen has gotten even better than before with Bell, Balfour and Oviedo. If we perform the way we should, I think we're going to be the best bullpen in the league. To me, we have been a top-three bullpen in the league the last couple of years, so with the names that we've got, we should be better than last year."

Bill Chastain is a reporter for

Tampa Bay Rays, Grant Balfour, Heath Bell, Jake McGee, Joel Peralta