With Balfour at end, Rays have deep bullpen

Maddon says newly signed reliever will close, and he's also excited about other arms

With Balfour at end, Rays have deep bullpen

TAMPA, Fla. -- Rays manager Joe Maddon felt some anxiety about one particular topic Thursday afternoon. He joked that he had to meditate about it, and he eventually exchanged text messages with executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman for some further guidance.

The issue was whether Maddon could officially name Grant Balfour -- signed Thursday to a two-year, $12 million deal -- the Rays' closer. It's a word Maddon often does his best to avoid, particularly with Kyle Farnsworth in 2011 and Fernando Rodney the last two years, and it's a title Tampa Bay has been reluctant to grant this offseason.

With Balfour, however, there was little doubt. Maddon went ahead and said it Thursday afternoon at the Tampa Museum of Art: Balfour will be the Rays' new closer, the leader of quite possibly the deepest bullpen Tampa Bay has ever had.

"We're actually going to use the C-word this year, which is very unique for me and for us. It's a radical departure," Maddon said, smiling. "But he has earned this particular situation, this moment, this role. We're going to have a really deep bullpen. I'm looking at the names, it's really exciting."

Maddon agreed that, on paper, the 2014 bullpen could be the strongest in franchise history. They have three players with closing experience in Balfour and right-handers Heath Bell and Juan Carlos Oviedo (formerly Leo Nunez). They'll also return their two top setup men in right-hander Joel Peralta and lefty Jake McGee, and the Rays previously have expressed confidence that both of them could work in the ninth inning.

After those five, Tampa Bay will return lefty Cesar Ramos, who's capable of pitching multiple innings, and the final spot figures to go to Brandon Gomes or Josh Lueke, or perhaps a non-roster invitee like veteran right-hander Mark Lowe.

"Theoretically, it's really outstanding," Maddon said. "Keeping them well, spreading out the work, not overabusing anybody, I think, is important. But the names are about as good of a stack of names we've had."

Known for his strategic bullpen use and his penchant for playing matchups in high-leverage situations, Maddon said he hasn't spent too much time thinking about how he'll deploy each of his relievers yet. That preparation often takes place before each series, when the Rays determine which relievers match up well against which opposing hitters and how certain scenarios might play out.

"That's still going to be a big part of it," Maddon said. "All that stuff ... that's a big part of how we work the latter part of the game, is us figuring out the best spots for each one of these guys, and then in turn, they have themselves pretty good years."

Maddon also acknowledged the importance of having that kind of depth at the back end of the bullpen, and principal owner Stuart Sternberg touched on why the Rays made that such a priority this offseason.

"If something keeps me up, it's the injuries and the bullpen. Injuries are completely unforeseen, and bullpens in a way are unforeseen. You'll have a team that has the best bullpen in the league one year, and then the next year, they can't get an out," Sternberg said. "So that's the kind of thing where we try to do as much as we can, and the mixing and matching and the different looks that Joe is able to create."

By putting together such a well-stocked relief corps, Tampa Bay also has helped protect its roster in the event of an injury. That's most obvious in Bell, Oviedo, Peralta and McGee, who have all proven capable of handling the ninth inning if Balfour ever goes down.

Although he's struggled the last two seasons, Bell was a standout closer in San Diego from 2009-11. Oviedo saved 92 games with a 3.86 ERA for the Marlins from 2009-11. Peralta has posted a 3.32 ERA in 206 innings over 227 appearances since 2011, and the flamethrowing McGee is only a year removed from logging a 1.95 ERA and a 0.795 WHIP.

Beyond that, the Rays have some solid, Major League-ready bullpen depth in the Minors. That group is led by right-handers Brad Boxberger and Kirby Yates and lefties C.J. Riefenhauser and Jeff Beliveau. They also had left-hander Pedro Figueroa waiting in the wings, but he was designated for assignment Thursday to make room for Balfour on the 40-man roster.

Boxberger, acquired Wednesday in the trade that sent 2013 bullpen standout Alex Torres to the Padres, has recorded a 2.72 ERA with 57 strikeouts in 49 2/3 innings in the Majors. Yates saved 20 games with a 1.90 ERA for Triple-A Durham last year. Riefenhauser, a 2013 Futures Game participant, went 6-1 with a 1.22 ERA between Durham and Double-A Montgomery last year. And Beliveau's coming off a 2013 season where he posted a 2.40 ERA in 48 2/3 innings.

"You just don't know [how it's going to play out]," Sternberg said, "but you try to put as much in there as you can and then really close your eyes and see how it develops."

But the Rays won't be closing their eyes and picking a ninth-inning reliever this spring. They've been building a deep bullpen all winter, and on Thursday, they found a closer to finish it off.

"I feel like I've had a lot of success in that role, and I would love to continue doing that role," Balfour said. "That's my plan."

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.