To say that the Tampa Bay Rays renovated their bullpen over the offseason would be an understatement. The Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen wasn't a bathroom in need of minor repair, or a kitchen with a wall to knock down. The Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen was a two-story house flattened by a tornado. The Tampa Bay Rays' bullpen was a bullpen that had to be completely rebuilt from the ground up.
Gone was Rafael Soriano. Gone was Lance Cormier. Gone were Joaquin Benoit and Dan Wheeler and Randy Choate and Chad Qualls and Grant Balfour. Of the eight Rays relievers who threw at least 20 innings out of the bullpen in 2010, the only pitcher remaining was Andy Sonnanstine, and in 2010, Andy Sonnanstine wasn't good.
So the Rays got to work. By various means, they assembled a brand new bullpen. And more, where a lot of people were skeptical and calling the Rays' bullpen a probable weakness, the unit to date has gotten the job done just fine. Rob Neyer just talked about the Rays' bullpen a few weeks ago, and right now, its 3.12 ERA ranks third in the American League, between the Blue Jays and the Indians. The message there seems obvious: the Rays know what they're doing, and they once again have a strong relief corps despite having to build it on a budget practically from scratch.
But, as is so often the case, that collective ERA is misleading. The Rays' bullpen has done a good job of preventing runs to date, but there's reason to believe that rougher times might lie ahead. Below, find where the Rays' bullpen ranks league-wide in a few important statistics:
Strikeout rate: 30th
Walk rate: 15th
Groundball rate: 25th
Contact rate: 25th
HR/Fly Ball: 1st
While the Rays' bullpen has a shiny ERA, it has a shiny ERA and the third-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio in baseball. That shiny ERA is in large part the result of an unsustainably low BABIP, and an unsustainably low rate of home runs per fly ball. xFIP isn't a perfect metric, and it's an even more imperfect metric for measuring relievers, but it's a heck of a lot more meaningful than ERA, and the Rays' bullpen xFIP is bad. The Rays' bullpen xFIP suggests that this group of relievers isn't actually very good at all.
The individual pitcher breakdown:
Kyle Farnsworth has been okay, even though he hasn't missed bats. Joel Peralta has been fine, if worse than he was a year ago. And after them, you have seven relievers with 42 strikeouts and 40 walks in 71-1/3 innings. That is not good.
Fortunately for the Rays, it looks like they're about to get J.P. Howell back, and while he hasn't pitched in the Majors since 2009 due to injury, he has an excellent track record when healthy, so he'll probably provide a boost. Additionally, bullpens aren't hard to adjust on the fly, so the Rays will be able to shuffle out ineffective relievers for different options if they so desire. They are by no means doomed to a summer of inconsistent relief.
But all those articles about how the Rays' bullpen is a feel-good story in the early going - they both hit and miss the mark. The Rays' completely reconstructed bullpen hasn't allowed many runs to date, which is impressive, but it's going to start allowing more of them soon if it doesn't shape up.