Tampa Bay Rays General Manager Andrew Friedman seems to have an incredible knack for rescuing middle relievers from the scrap heap, and turning them into Rays gold. Every off-season he seems to find an arm on the cheap that ends up having a huge impact in the Rays relief corps.
Last season it was Joaquin Benoit. He started 2010 in AAA after signing a minor league contract with the Rays on the heels of missing all of 2009 with a torn rotator cuff. After 8 appearances at Durham, he was up with the big club, and by mid-season was firmly entrenched as Rafael Soriano's set-up guy. The rest as they say...is history.
Benoit went on to post some absolutely unreal number. In 63 appearances he had a microscopic ERA of 1.34 to go along with the tidiest of WHIP's (0.68). His K/9 rate was also a gaudy 11.2. And although Soriano received all of the attention nationally, Benoit was just as important to the success of the Rays bullpen.
When the Rays lost virtually their entire bullpen to free agency this off-season, many Rays fans must have been wondering how Freidman was going to rebuild the bullpen on a shoe-string budget.
Simple. Do the same thing that has proven to be a charm in past seasons. Take on a talented reclamation project and hope he pans out.
Bringing guys on board like Joel Peralta and Kyle Farnsworth was a good start. But while everyone was clamoring over the signings of Johnny Damon and Manny Ramirez, it was a transaction that took place a few days later which really piqued my interest, and may turn out to be just as huge for the Rays in 2011. The signing of right-hander Juan Cruz to a minor league deal.
I'm not sure why no team took a flyer on him, but I'm glad the Rays did. He does have a history of injuries, having been on the disabled list 9 times since his big league debut in 2001....and he also has had command issues averaging 4.72 BB/9 in his 9 year career. But he also has held right handed hitters to a .223 Avg and has allowed only 501 hits in 570 2/3 innings. He is also tough to hit when he has his command as demonstrated by his 9.1 K/9 rate. He seems to have a live arm and the veteran presence the Rays need in the pen right now.
Guys like Grant Balfour and Benoit with similar skill sets and past history have come to the Rays and flourished. With Cruz, Joe Maddon has an option late in the game to get tough righties out, and who knows, with the bullpen situation as it is, it might not be out of the realm of possibilities to see Cruz get a shot at closing.
You see something VERY interesting when you take a look at Cruz's Similarity Scores. Look at the pitcher whose career numbers are closest to his....Joaquin Benoit. This of course doesn't mean that Cruz and Benoit are the same pitcher. But...it IS interesting.
Cruz doesn't have the velocity or command of Benoit, and through the season's first 6 games, it appears that Maddon may be leaning towards Peralta or Farnsworth to get the first crack at save opportunities based on how he has used the pen late in games. It is also unlikely that Cruz (or anyone else for that matter) will put up the terrific numbers that Benoit posted last season.
Still with Maddon's propensity to play match-ups late in the game, it is likely that more often than not, Cruz will be put in favorable spots to prove that he can still get Major League hitters out.
Nobody really knows at this point how the Rays bullpen will shake out in the long term, and with the team's 0-6 start, it is hard to get a true read on how Maddon will set things up in the late innings. As dismal as it has been in the season's first week for the Rays, there WILL be close games in which the team is leading. Juan Cruz may not be given the first shot at setting up or closing, but I wouldn't be surprised if he ends up being in the mix sooner rather than later.
This time last year Joaquin Benoit was in Durham and nobody knew just how good of a pitcher he would be for the Rays in 2010. But by season's end, he was making the Rays front office look very shrewd. I'm not saying that Juan Cruz will be Joaquin Benoit in 2011. But somebody needs to be close for this team to have any chance at contending. Why not him? I'm banking that Juan Cruz will end up being Friedman's bullpen revelation for 2011.