Potential Players of Interest: Groundballers
By design, fortune, or a little of both, the Rays have gradually moved away from a specialized bullpen to one without definite shape. Calling upon Randy Choate and Dan Wheeler to face same-side hitters has been replaced by using Joel Peralta versus David Ortiz and Jake McGee against Manny Machado. Despite the shift from specialists to neutralists the Rays continue to earmark one position in the bullpen for a groundball aficionado.
Tampa Bay’s front office is market driven. Surveying this year’s free agent class, there is a good number of pitchers that fit the mold with varying price tags. Here are some names that may catch the Rays’ attention:
Matt Lindstrom is probably the ceiling of the group because his stuff is the highest quality. He is technically not a free agent yet as Chicago hold a team option, but the White Sox have little incentive to pay a decent wage to a middle reliever. His career groundball rate is near 50 percent with a new career-high established in 2013. Along with a heavy sinker that tops out near 95 mph, he throws a hard slider that misses bats at an above-average rate although you could not tell from moderate strikeout marks. That is more of a product of generating in-play outs with the sinker than a knock on stuff. The 33-year-old has a lot of moving parts in his motion and a history of back and arm issues.
Luis Ayala has spent a decade in the major leagues; getting by with guile over natural ability. He is no stranger to the American League East having spent time with the Yankees and Orioles. The right-hander short arms the ball to the plate while throwing an upper-80s sinker, mid-80s slider or cutter, and a changeup against left-handed batters. He has a little Joel Peralta in him in the way vary his deliveries to disguise looks and disrupt timing. Like Lindstrom, his career groundball rate is just under 50 percent with the highest coming last season. He will be 36 by opening day 2014 and carries an interesting injury history that includes: anxiety disorder, Tommy John surgery, and nerve damage from a gunshot wound to his left arm.
Being a side-arm tosser makes Joe Smith a bird of a different feather by nature. He is also atypical in the fact that he has been able to stave off the platoon split without a traditional weapon to combat it. A two-pitch pitcher, Smith generates groundballs with a low-90s sinker that he keeps below the batter’s belt. His second offering is a slider in the low-80s that begins in the right-handed batters box and cuts across the zone. It is usually a same-side pitch which makes its’ effectiveness against lefties usual. Because it occupies a similar space in the zone as the sinker, it essentially acts as breaking ball and off-speed pitch in one. The youngest pitcher of the bunch does a fantastic job at limiting extra-base hits.
Peter Moylan and Nick Masset are lumped together because their recent heath issues make them tough to gauge in 2014. Masset has not thrown a major league pitch since 2011 and has since had two surgeries on his right shoulder. Prior to injury, he threw four pitches with regularity including: a mid-90s fastball, a low-90s cutter or slider, a breaking ball in the low-80s, and a splitter that bridged the gap. The heater is responsible for his sizable groundball rate while the secondary pitches generate whiffs and keep him split free. A St. Petersburg native, he may be able to find work as a non-roster invitee if he wishes to attempt a comeback with the home team.
Moylan is no stranger to the knife, having undergone rotator cuff, back, and Tommy John surgery in the past. He pitched briefly for the Dodgers in 2013 with unfavorable results. Throwing from a side-arm angle, he uses his 90-mph fastball to generate some extreme groundball figures with a sweeping upper-70s slider as a sidekick. There is an off-speed pitch that sometimes sneaks into the mix. Like Masset, he is likely looking at a non-guaranteed deal in hopes to prove there is some viability in his right arm.
It would be foolish to count Jamey Wright out of anything at this point in his career. After 18 seasons, the veteran right-hander finally made it to the postseason in his first year with the Rays. Things went so well, it would not be a shock to see him back in Tampa Bay; perhaps with a guaranteed contract for the first time in nearly a decade. Using a his upper-80s sinker, he posted a groundball rate north of 50 percent for the ninth straight season. He also used a sharp cutter and a slow curveball to post career-highs in strike outs and strikeout-to-walk ratio. Approaching 40, he is durable, free of platoon splits, and a popular figure in the clubhouse.
Since the Sternberg regime assumed control in 2006, Tampa Bay has employed at least one relief pitcher with a groundball rate in each season (minimum 30 innings). It started with Chad Harville and Shawn Camp in 2006 and continued in 2013 with Wright and Fernando Rodney. Considering the value of a pitcher that limits extra-base hits, and can frequently induce two outs with one pitch, it stands to reason they will carve out a roster spot for one on the 2014 team.