Prior to the start of Saturday night's game with the Red Sox, the Rays demonstrated through their actions that improving the 'pen was a priority by trading fan favorite Ty Wigginton to the Astros for right-handed reliever Dan Wheeler.
"Upgrading our bullpen has been a priority for us for a long time," said executive vice-president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "Obviously, to get somebody of Dan's caliber, we had to give up somebody of equal value, and Wiggy's meant a great deal to this organization the year and a half he's been here, both on the field and in the clubhouse."
Friedman characterized trading Wigginton as bittersweet.
"But on the other hand, to get a relief pitcher who can pitch important high-leveraged innings at the back of the game, is extremely important," Friedman said. "Especially with our young starting pitchers and how important we felt it was to insulate them from a bullpen perspective. We're going to continue to be aggressive to continue to shore up our bullpen. We feel like we made a lot of progress today, and it's going to pay dividends today and in the future."
To replace Wigginton, the Rays recalled shortstop Ben Zobrist from Triple-A Durham. Zobrist will be used in the middle-infield mix with Brendan Harris and Josh Wilson. Wheeler is expected to arrive Sunday night, and the Rays will have to make a counter move prior to Monday night's game. No changes will be need to be made to the 40-man roster to accompany all of Saturday's activity.
Friedman characterized Saturday's trade with Houston as one that he believes will work out for both sides.
"Houston's got a lot of depth in their bullpen and was looking for an offensive player," Friedman said. "And we feel like we've got some depth offensively, and we tried to use that to address our bullpen."
The acquisition of Wheeler, 29, should indeed help shore up the Rays' much-maligned bullpen. The veteran right-hander pitched for the Rays from 1999-2001. In nine Major League seasons, he has a 12-21 record with a 3.99 ERA and 25 saves in 302 games.
"He's a guy who instantly helps a bullpen," Friedman said. "And [he] has experienced pitching in pressure situations and has excelled in those roles. We're just excited to add him to the mix in the bullpen."
Wheeler is 1-4 with a 5.07 ERA and 11 saves in 45 appearances, which doesn't reflect the same kind of performance Wheeler has shown in the past. "I went though a little bit of a rough stretch and that kind of hurt me," Wheeler said. "I've been throwing the ball pretty good the last couple of times. In some situations, when you miss over the plate, these are big league hitters and they don't miss. I know what was happening, and hopefully it's in the past because the last couple of times have been better."
Friedman did not seem concerned.
"If you look at it, he's still showing great command," Friedman said. "He's still striking out a lot of guys. He's still giving up a few too many home runs. But that ballpark probably doesn't help too much. We still see him having the same stuff. It's just half a season, and we see him having a lot of success in '07 and beyond."
Wheeler lives in Seminole, Fla., and is the son-in-law of Rays TV play-by-play man Dewayne Staats.
"It's very comforting to know I don't have to be concerned about a place to live or any of those things," Wheeler said. "And I've got one of the top-rated TV guys in the business as a babysitter."
Wigginton, 29, signed as a free agent with the Rays on Jan. 10, 2006, and made an impression at Spring Training when he brought along catcher's equipment to complement the myriad of gloves he owned for playing virtually every position except pitcher.
Once the 2006 season began, Wigginton became an instant fan favorite for his blue-collar play. Despite missing the month of August with a fractured bone in his left hand, he led the team in home runs with 24 while hitting .275 and collecting 79 RBIs. He did not play any games at catcher, but he showed flexibility by playing first base, second, third, left and right fields and DH.
Wigginton had started 97 of the Rays' 102 games before getting scratched from Saturday night's lineup, with 15 starts at first, 15 at DH, 37 at second and 30 at third, hitting .275 with 16 home runs and 49 RBIs.
"You're always surprised when a trade happens," Wigginton said. "But at the same time, it's a positive when another team is interested in you. I look forward to being a part of the Astros family."
Wigginton said he has enjoyed his time with the Rays.
"I think Andrew is going to do everything right to make this place better," Wigginton said. "And I think everybody has heard what [owner] Stu [Sternberg] has to say and how he plans to make this place a winner. So I wish the Devil Rays all the best."
Wigginton is signed to a contract that pays him $2.7 million for the 2007 season; Wheeler is signed to a $2.1 million deal. The Rays will control Wheeler through the 2008 season. He will be eligible for free agency in 2009.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.