Rays' relievers wrapping up tough season

Rays' relievers wrapping up tough '09

ST. PETERSBURG -- It seems as if every aspect of the 2009 Rays is considered a disappointment when compared to last year's group.

The bullpen is no different.

Going into Wednesday's game against the Orioles at Tropicana Field, Tampa Bay's relief corps ranks 16th in the Major Leagues with a 4.02 ERA, while its 23 losses are tied for 14th, and its 22 blown saves are tied for eighth -- along with, among others, the last-place team it's currently hosting.

On the way to a World Series berth last year, however, the Rays' bullpen sported a collective 3.55 regular-season ERA -- ranked fifth in the Majors -- and had just 17 losses and 15 blown saves all year.

"I'm not going to say it was terrible," right-hander Grant Balfour said about what he thinks of this year's group. "It's never as good as it seems, it's never as bad as it seems, I guess. Definitely, we wanted to do better. I would say that definitely, overall, we would've liked to be better. Last year, it was unbelievable -- we all did what we needed to do. And this year, we obviously didn't achieve what we wanted to do, and that goal was to go to the playoffs, so I guess you'd have to look at it as a failure."

The worst stretch for the 'pen came from Aug. 7-Sept. 16, a time when the Rays went 13-24. During those 37 games, the bullpen combined to go 2-12 with a Major League-high nine blown saves in 13 chances.

"I think, overall, I like what we've done," right-hander Dan Wheeler said. "We just happened to hit a bump in the road late, and it happened at the worst time of the year."

The financially strapped Rays can ill-afford for high-priced players to have off years, but that was relatively the case for some of their bullpen mates.

Chad Bradford, making $3.5 million this year, had a 4.35 ERA in just 20 games, and manager Joe Maddon said Wednesday he won't be used the rest of the year because of right elbow discomfort. Russ Springer, earning $3.3 million, has a 4.15 ERA in 73 games. Troy Percival, making more than $4 million, has only appeared in 14 games, has a 6.35 ERA and is contemplating retirement. And Joe Nelson, signed to a $1.3 million contract this offseason, sported a 4.02 ERA and wasn't called up to the club when rosters expanded in September.

Addressing bullpen needs could be a priority for Tampa Bay's front office this offseason, but they'll of course be limited by what they can spend.

"I think you kind of have to see what's out there, and assess what's out there," Bradford said. "Obviously, we're a little bit handicapped with the money that we can spend, and I understand that. I have 100 percent confidence that the management part will make the right decisions for what's going to help us get back to where we want to be, and that's in the playoffs and hopefully winning a World Series next year."

Maddon has had to pretty much play the matchup game all year, and lately, he's taken that to another level. Over the past three games, a combined 17 relievers have been used, which is an average of more than five different arms a game.

The Rays' skipper said he would prefer to slot his relievers into certain innings -- it would certainly make game-planning a whole lot easier -- but personnel currently dictates how he manages his bullpen.

And Maddon doesn't see the matchup game going away any time soon.

"It requires a lot more thought than just saying, 'You're going to pitch the seventh, he's got the eighth, he's got the ninth,'" Maddon said. "From a planning perspective, [it's] a lot easier just to have it set up that way, but that's not who we are. And probably we're going to be a matchup team for the near future, also. It's not a matter of you like it one way or another, that's just the way you are."

Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.