The Rays have their closer.
After Thursday's signing of right-hander Grant Balfour to a two-year, $12-million contract, could they be closing in on favored status for the World Series?
That's the expectation for Balfour, the former Ray who was an American League All-Star last season with the Oakland Athletics.
Rays manager Joe Maddon was beaming over the return of his lineup and starting pitching staff, plus an ultra-deep bullpen that should provide healthy options even in the late season.
Principal owner Stuart Sternberg, even while mildly concerned over a payroll that could surpass $80-million, said he didn't need any convincing to approve the deal.
“This is clearly as good of a team as we could ask for, given our (financial) constraints,'' said Sternberg, who helped to unveil Balfour's signing during an event for Rays' sponsors at the Tampa Museum of Art. “It (signing Balfour) was a reach, something we hadn't considered within our grasp necessarily. It started to become a possibility. (We thought) what an ideal fit he would be for us – money notwithstanding. Having said that, it's in for a penny, in for a pound, I guess.
“We keep coming back to this … this year is the exception (in adding payroll) … this year is the exception. Well, we've had some exceptional teams. We wanted to give this organization the best chance to compete and win. When you see the opportunity for something like this … in some respects, it's the price of success.''
Balfour, 36, was 1-3 with a 2.59 ERA and 38 saves in 2013, his third season with Oakland. In the past two seasons, he was 62-for-67 in save opportunities with the A's.
Last month, a proposed two-year, $15-million agreement between Balfour and the Baltimore Orioles was negated when the club objected to results of Balfour's physical.
The door was re-opened. And even though Balfour said he had offers worth more money, he selected the Rays because of his happy experience playing for the organization in 2007-10.
“I'll be honest, I never wanted to leave here,'' said Balfour, an Australia native who still owns a home in Clearwater with his wife and two daughters. “I want to win a World Series. We got really close here in 2008. I'm really hoping in the next two years – or however long I get to play here – we can win one.''
Balfour, who said he passed his Rays' physical “with flying colors apparently,'' was shocked when his deal with the Orioles fell through.
“I look at the numbers I've put up and the fact that I've – knock on wood – had no time on the DL,'' Balfour said. “I'm out there giving it everything I've got, put up an All-Star season, then to get that news is kind of a little shocking.
“Other teams told me I didn't need to take a physical. Then to pass the physical here … it just seems a little odd. It's kind of unexplainable for me. I'll leave it up to the Orioles to explain. All I know is I'm a Tampa Bay Ray. I'm very happy to be here. Things work out for a reason.''
Fernando Rodney, the Rays' closer for two seasons, could be headed for a free-agent deal with the Orioles. Meanwhile, Maddon, who prefers to mix-and-match roles in Tampa Bay's bullpen, proclaimed the obvious. Balfour will be the Rays' closer.
“We're actually going to use the C-word (closer) this year, which is unique for me and for us,'' Maddon said. “If you've got that many capable arms (in the bullpen), you're not going to run anybody into the ground, which is great in a long season. The more, the merrier, man. To have all these different tools in the tool box, all of a sudden, it's kind of neat.''
Although things could change, Maddon and Sternberg said they expect left-hander David Price, the 2012 AL Cy Young Award winner, to spend this season with the Rays. Price, who signed a one-year, $14-million deal, has been the constant subject of trade speculation.
“David Price is a Ray and I expect to him to be a Ray,'' Sternberg said. “I expect him to be here for the life of his contract. None of this (Balfour signing) was done with the belief that David would or would not be here.
“We're not waking up every morning waiting for the phone to ring. We're not dialing around the league trying to make something happen. This was done to take a baseball team that has the opportunity to be special this year and give it a chance to do so.''