Bradford Injury and Rays Bullpen Notes
When the Rays faced the Baltimore Orioles in early 2008, they always had to worry about having submariner Chad Bradford come into the game in the late innings against them. Because of his off-kilter delivery it made the Ray’s batters adjust on the fly to the rising pitches and extreme curve of his ball. So it is no surprise that the team was excited that the Rays front office traded for Bradford on August 7th for a player to be named later. It was considered an odd trade at the time because the Rays had formed a Bullpen that took a 180 degree turn from 2007 and became very competitive from both sides of the pitching rubber. This news might be received differently by both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. The Yankees had the most success against Bradford in 2008, hitting .333 against him, while the Red Sox hit a collective 1-6 against him for a lowly .167 average last season.
But the addition of Bradford was looked at as an extra weapon that teams could not stack lineup, or late inning substitutions because of his major league relievers leading 4.38 ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio. Because of their increased defense, the style of pitching that Bradford brought to the team actually played into the teeth of the Rays infield defense in 2008. Another odd happening involving Bradford happened during this years off season.
Because the two teams could not agree upon a player to be named later for the trade, the Rays paid the Orioles $ 20,000 for the rights to Bradford to complete the trade agreement. That is the amount for the standard waiver claim fee paid in the MLB. So that concluded their business with the Orioles, and the Rays now had the righty all to themselves at $ 3.5 million dollars for 2009. But all that came crashing down yesterday when it was revealed by the Rays that Bradford could miss a small chunk of the beginning of the season after feeling some pain during his off season pitching program.
With only days until pitchers’ and catchers were set to report, the team medical staff the sent him to respected surgeon Dr.James Andrews, who performed surgery on his right elbow in Birmingham, Alabama this week. The surgery was to remove loose found to be inside his elbow. Bradford, who was performing even after the initial pain came up in his elbow tried to loosen up after the injury and the pain would increase and the joint stiffened quickly after throwing. It has been estimated that this recovery, and the rehab might take between 4-6 months to complete and will help solve a few questions about the Rays 2009 Bullpen setup.
Because of his downtime, Bradford actually might have saved a player currently on the Rays Spring Training roster a spot going into the season. This is not to say that they might still not pick up another body for competition before the final roster is announced, but it will at least make a few of the Rays players without options left feel a bit more secure as they set to arrive on Saturday for their first team workout on Sunday morning. “We decided that doing a scope would be in the best interest of him and the team,” said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman told MLB.com . “We did that and we expect him to miss the first month or two of the season. But to focus on the positive, it’s going to be a great shot in the arm for us when he is back. And to be able to add that quality of a reliever to the mix at that point.”
The subtraction of Bradford to injury gives more chances to the incoming members of the Rays Bullpen to showcase their talents and make their case to be included in the Rays 2009 25-man roster. Three new high-profile members of the Spring Training staff, Lance Cormier, Joe Nelson, Rule-5 draftee Derek Rodriguez will begin the spring with a little more confidence in making the 25-man roster. Rodriguez, who has to be on the 25-man roster the entire year or be offered back to his former team will have the longest shot of making the squad this spring. But the Rays hold this young player in high regards and he might make it deep into the spring before a decision is made about his Rays future.
But these guys will also face battles from incoming invitees for a spot in the Rays Bullpen. Veterans like Randy Choate and ex-Ray Jason Childers and Winston Abreu. People might remember that back in 2006, Childers actually made the Rays 2006 Opening Day roster, but his time with the team was short lived as he was designated for assignment after only 7.2 innings in the majors. Abreu has major league experience with the Washington Nationals having pitched at the major league level both in 2006, and 2007 for the team. His major league totals are 0-1, with 3 holds and a 5.93 ERA in 29 appearances. Choate gained most face time to Rays fans as a member of the New York Yankees from 2000-2003.
These incoming Bullpen battery mates might make the Rays squad out of Spring Training, but it is the guys who are currently on the teams 40-man roster without minor league options pose the biggest decision by the team’s staff before April. We all know that Rays pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann are two members of the squad that will be fighting for their collective careers this spring, but some decision by the Rays could also make their springs a little less filled with drama and suspense. Hammel began to settle in as a member of the Rays relievers corp in 2008. At times he looked rusty and unsure of himself, but as the year went on his confidence and his abilities began to shine on the mound.
His shining moment in 2008 has to be the 9th inning save opportunity in Fenway Park against the Red Sox on September 10th when he came on in the 14th inning to relieve Troy Percival with no outs and the bases loaded in the game. Hammel quickly got Kevin Youkilis to hit a weak sacrifice fly, he struck out Jason Bay and got Alex Cora to fly out to B J Upton in center field to secure his first professional save that night. Hammel began the year in the Rays rotation taking the spot of injured starter Scott Kazmir, and he officially went to the Bullpen on May 10th after Kazmir was brought back up off the disabled list.
Hammel opened the season in the number 5 slot for the Rays and posted a 2-2 record in 5 starts, with an 4.88 ERA. He did win two consecutive starts during that time, on April 17th in Minnesota and April 23rd at home against Toronto. Hammel also went a career high 7.0 innings in a no-decision April 12th against the Baltimore Orioles. Because of his familiarity of the Rays system in the Bullpen, he might have the early lead on retaining his long reliever spot. But Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann is just getting acquainted to the major leagues.
But because of early injury problems in his career he has been an after thought in the Rays plans for a few seasons. After completing a great season in the minors and spending the beginning of the year up with the Rays starting, he also might be an extremely long look before the Rays make any decisions in the Bullpen. Niemann got an early chance to make his statement to stay up with the Rays difficult when he started for the team twice in April 2008 after being recalled due to a Matt Garza elbow injury. This was his first extended stay up with the Rays and he won his major league debut against the Orioles on April 13th, going 6 innings giving up 6-hits and a lone run and 5 strikeouts in the contest. Niemann was recalled after the Durham Bulls loss in the International League Cup on September 13th and went straight to St Petersburg to meet the team after their road trip.
Niemann was used 3 relief appearances late in the year, and he responded by going 6.2 innings with 7-hits and 3 earned runs and 8 strikeouts. Because of his height, the tall right hander can make it look almost like he is throwing it downhill towards you at the plate. Niemann is currently only 1 of 6 pitchers in the MLB who stands at least 6″ 9″ tall. But with his Rays history, a lot is going to be placed on his 6′ 9″ shoulders in 2009. The fact that he was the Rays first round draft pick out of Rice University in 2004. Because of those pitching injuries, his progress between the minors and the major leagues has been extended and almost exhausted by both himself and the Rays. With no minor league options left for him, it might be “put up or shut up” time for the big guy.
But he also will face some questions since most of his time while with the Triple-A squad were as a starting pitcher in 2008. In Durham, Niemann made 24 starts and posted a 9-5 record with a 3.59 ERA. His .207 opponents average was the 7th best in the minors, and he held right handers to a .162 average for the year. He also posted some great number overall in the International League, his 3.59 ERA put him in 7th in the International League and his 128 strikeouts put him 5th in the entire Rays organization for 2008. He also tied for first in the International League in complete game, with 3 for the year.
These two players will have to face some incredible odds to remain with the team in 2009. But with the injury to Bradford, the task got a bit easier for them. But they are not the only guys seeking that coveted spot in the Bullpen each one of these guys could make it because of their past success in the major leagues, and with the team in the past. You might consider that the Rays will sign more more member to the spring roster to give more competition to these young guns. But in the end, both Hammel and Niemann will either both be on the Rays roster, or be traded to another team before the start of the season. It is anyone guess right now on the future of these two shining lights in the Rays pitching staff. Hopefully the team can find spots for both of these players until Bradford comes back from his injury. If they can not, the hope is that the player that leaves the squad finds a team that can use his talents and keeps growing to secure a spot on a major league roster in 2009.