Al Reyes (Associated Press)
As expected, the Tampa Bay Rays exercised the $2.3 million option on Al Reyes' contract on Wednesday, ensuring that the team's most reliable relief pitcher will be back in 2008. Reyes, who emerged as the team's closer after a strong April, provided the Rays with a consistent arm in relief, finishing the season with 26 saves, the fifth-highest total in franchise history. After earning saves in 16 consecutive chances to start the season, prompting some serious consideration to be elected to the American League All-Star team, the veteran right-hander, however, had to overcome his fair share of struggles. But Reyes' issues were mostly the result of infrequent use, since save situations were sparse during some points throughout the summer. Other than a few rough outings, the intimidating ninth-inning stopper, nicknamed "El Assenino," was lights out, providing Rays manager Joe Maddon with peace of mind when the Rays had a lead headed into the game's final inning.
The 37-year-old, who also battled physical problems in the season's second half, set a club record with nine saves in April, a total which put him among the American League leaders. After missing the entire 2006 season because of Tommy John surgery, Reyes posted fairly impressive numbers – including a.215 BAA, 4.90 ERA, and a 1.15 WHIP, while scattering just 49 hits in 60.2 innings. And with only four blown saves in 30 opportunities, Reyes finished the year with an 86.7 save percentage, also among the highest totals throughout the league and third best in team history.
By picking up Reyes' option, the organization seems undaunted with the fan favorite's 5.87 ERA in 27 second-half appearances. But with little bullpen help on the way at this point, depending on how serious the Rays' interest in free agent closer Troy Percival becomes, brining back Reyes, at such a cheap price, was an easy decision.
"I'm happy they picked up my option," Reyes said. "They gave me a chance after Tommy John surgery in '06, and then they gave me a chance to earn a spot on the roster."
On Wednesday, the team made several other roster moves, declining to exercise the $1 million option on outfielder Greg Norton's contract. Norton, who enjoyed a fine season with the Rays in 2006, struggled through an injury-plagued season, collecting only 49 hits in 202 at bats. And with the emergence of Carlos Pena, the Rays' Team Most Valuable Player and the Silver Slugger Award winner at first base in the American League, combined with surplus of talented outfielders, Norton became expendable. After enjoying a banner season in 2006, when he hit .298 with a personal-best 17 home runs and 45 RBIs in 98 games, he had the fast track on the starting designated hitter job headed into the season. But a knee injury suffered in spring training, which required surgery, proved to ignite the downfall to his status in the organization. Pena, also a nonroster invitee, was sent packing on the final day of Grapefruit League Play, becoming one of the Rays' final cuts. But Norton's unexpected injury created a need for a left-handed bat off of the bench, prompting Pena's return. And after securing regular playing time, Pena turned in one of the most prolific seasons in club history, shattering Aubrey Huff's team single-season record with 46 home runs.
Norton had a strong finish to the season, even hitting .345 in August, offering his best shot to convince the baseball operations department that he deserved to stay with the Rays. But due to numerous nagging injuries, including an elbow injury that haunted him all year, he only hit .243 with four homers and 23 RBIs in 2007 while playing through the pain. Unfortunately for Norton, the decision, like the one made on Reyes, was not a difficult one.
In the other roster changes, the team reinstated oft-injured outfielder Rocco Baldelli, a player swirling around in the trade winds lately, catcher Shawn Riggans, and shortstop Ben Zobrist from the 60-day disabled list. Riggans, if healthy, is expected to handle the backup catching duties in 2008, which is one of the main reasons for Josh Paul's exodus from the team via free agency.
You can reach Tyler Hissey at TylerHissey@gmail.com.