ST. PETERSBURG -- Adding to the top rather than the bottom will give the Rays' bullpen an improved look in 2008.
In November, the Rays signed veteran Troy Percival to a deal worth $8 million over two years to become the team's closer.
Percival's career appeared over last summer when he rejected a Minor League contract from the Angels. But later he accepted a similar deal with the Cardinals, and quickly made the big league roster before finishing 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in 34 games.
Before signing with the Cardinals, the veteran right-hander had not pitched professionally since injuring his right forearm in July 2005. He attempted a comeback with the Tigers the next season, but he never saw the mound. Percival went as far as to sign a contract to coach with the Angels the following year.
Percival is 12th on the all-time saves list with 324, but he hasn't recorded save in nearly two and a half years. That should change if he remains healthy this season. Adding him has allowed the Rays to move last year's closer, Al Reyes, who had 26 saves in 2007, to a setup role, which adds depth to the late-inning situation.
Rays manager Joe Maddon believes Percival's coming aboard will mean more than what the statistics show. The Rays manager has a history with Percival dating back to when both were with the Angels.
"Getting Troy in the organization, I thought, was a big move for us," Maddon said. "One thing about Percival, I always felt being with him as long as I was, one of the most accountable people I've ever been around as a closer.
"This guy, you'd never know the next day whether he blew it or saved it," Maddon continued. "If things go poorly, he would never point his finger at somebody else. He will never do that. He's going to be great within the clubhouse, and also I think every bullpen needs an anchor. This guy truly has anchored it in the past. He's going to refer to it as his bullpen. You'll hear him say that most. He believes it and means it. We can use that. I think Percival is going to add an awful lot to our situation, and I'm really excited about that."
In the past, Maddon has dwelt on how he longed for a bullpen that contained at least four guys he could go to late in the game with a lead or the game tied. The Rays look closer than at any time in his tenure as manager to having those four.
In addition to Percival and Reyes, veteran right-handers Dan Wheeler and Gary Glover and newly signed lefty free-agent Trever Miller ahead of a host of other candidates to make up the 'pen.
Tampa Bay Rays
Scott Dohmann, Grant Balfour, Juan Salas and Kurt Birkins look like the best potential bets to round out the bullpen, but additional competition for those spots could come from the pitchers who do not win slots in the starting rotation -- which has just two available openings. Any one of the group containing Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell or Andy Sonnanstine could find their way down to the bullpen.
One noteworthy deficiency heading into Spring Training was the group's lack of left-handers before Miller signed Wednesday. Birkins was perhaps the lone previous candidate to fill that role, barring a move by coaches to send Howell to the 'pen.
With the starting pitching the Rays appear to have and an improved bullpen, it's easy to be optimistic about the coming season.
"The thing that happens -- it happened to us often last year, you would gain a lead late and you would lose it, and then you're talking about the mental side of things where you have to go in after the game and lick your wounds and console each other and come back the next day in an attempt to get the lead again into the seventh and eighth inning," Maddon said. "You lose it again, then you have that vicious cycle in regard to the group. The bullpen, I just think the bullpen can actually define whether or not you're going to win in the playoffs and in the World Series.
"I can go back to my experience with the Angels. If you look at the starting rotation, it was OK. You look at the bullpen -- it was exemplary. That's the difference."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.