The Rays have fewer NRIs than most teams, but that doesn’t make this group any less interesting.
In particular, there are several bullpen candidates here in Tampa Bay’s well-publicized quest to completely overhaul the 2010 bullpen, largely due to free agent departures.
Heck. R.J. Swindle alone makes this interesting. But there are some other guys worth highlighting too. Let’s take a look.
1B Russ Canzler–This longtime minor league slugger has yet to see Triple-A, and 2011 will be his eighth year in the minors. Still, he’s an intriguing guy, as he hit .287/.372/.566 in Double-A last year. 25 in April, Canzler’s in an organization that has some uncertainty at first base, so if he mashes in Triple-A and candidates ahead of him fail, perhaps he’ll get the call. He’ll get on Tampa Bay’s radar with a strong spring.
OF/1B Chris Carter–Carter has a nice blend of contact and patience ability, but hit just .263/.317/.389 in 2010 with the Mets. That can largely be chalked up to the fact that he almost never saw a strike–only 38.6% of pitches against him were in the strike zone. Only Pablo Sandoval saw fewer strikes, and his approach is far worse than Carter’s. Still worth a bench spot despite his terrible outfield defense, the 28-year-old will also be trying to edge his way into the uncertain 1B situation.
RHP Juan Cruz–Remember him? Let’s not forget this guy struck out 71 batters in 51 2/3 innings in 2008. Still just 32, Cruz still brings velocity and a good four-pitch mix that should allow him to be a high-strikeout reliever. He could be 2011’s Joaquin Benoit. The two questions surrounding Cruz: Is he healthy, and will he throw strikes? If the answer is yes to both, he could claim a high-leverage role.
INF J.J. Furmaniak–Now 31, the longtime minor league utilityman continues to bounce around looking for another big league gig. A solid hitter for a utilityman, he hit .264/.366/.352 with the Rays’ Triple-A affiliate last season while playing plus defense at second, short, and third. A patient hitter, he has a career .327 OBP in 52 plate appearances with Pittsburgh and Oakland. As usual, he’s a longshot, but a nice guy to root for.
RHP Dirk Hayhurst–Speaking of guys to root for, Hayhurst certainly is one. Known for his off-the-field eloquence, Hayhurst penned the popular book The Bullpen Gospels and also has an excellent blog. I’m sure that makes you ask: But can he pitch? His career 4.66 FIP says “yeah, sorta,” although Hayhurst has had a disturbing tendency to allow high BABIPs. A four-pitch righty, he could actually fit better as a starting pitcher, but he won’t get that chance in Tampa Bay’s stacked rotation picture. After posting some decent numbers in 2009 with the Blue Jays, Hayhurst missed all of 2010 with labrum surgery and will be looking to come back strong.
1B Casey Kotchman–Kotchman might as well have missed 2010 himself; it was a year to forget for the former top prospect. Still just 28, he spent his “prime” age-27 season flailing at a .217/.280/.336 clip with the Mariners. After 645 career games, Kotchman’s pretty conclusively proven he can’t live up to the lofty offensive standards of the first base position, and while he can play the position just fine on defense, he’s not worth employing unless he shows some pop. It’ll be interesting to see if he makes any radical changes to his game now that he’s finally run out of chances.
INF Felipe Lopez–A solid depth pickup, Lopez struggled last season, and nobody’s ever going to love his glove, but he’s just one year removed from hitting .310/.383/.427, and his 2010 struggles can be chalked up largely to a BABIP fluctuation. You don’t always know what you’re getting with Lopez–he struggled in 2007, 2004, 2003, and 2002 as well–but at age 30, he’s certainly worth a look; one has to figure he’s got another good year or two left in the tank as a utility player.
LHP R.J. Swindle–The 53-mph curve lives on! Swindle continues to dominate Triple-A hitters with his slow, slower, and much slower arsenal, posting a 55/10 K/BB in 55 Triple-A innings last year. Still looking to overcome his career 12.71 ERA in nine MLB appearances, Swindle continues to deserve an extended shot. Now 27, he’s got as good a chance as ever in the Rays’ bullpen turmoil.
RHP Cory Wade–Formerly a very dependable reliever, Wade throws strikes with a three-pitch mix; while his fastball is unimpressive, his curveball is a good pitch and his changeup has excellent screwball action on it. An excellent middle reliever in his rookie season in 2008, Wade was overused by Joe Torre in LA and wound up getting hurt the next season. A 20/4 K/BB in 29 1/3 Triple-A innings last year offers hope he’s back in form–like Swindle, Wade could be an asset if given an extended chance.