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02/12/09 12:31 PM EST

Rays bring formidable bullpen to camp

Spring Training expected to be competitive among relievers

ST. PETERSBURG -- Brian Shouse's addition brought yet another piece to the Rays' 2009 bullpen, which should be a competitive lot based on the players they will have in camp at the beginning of Spring Training.

Shouse's addition serves as a replacement for the departed Trever Miller, who signed with the Cardinals in December.

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The loss of Miller -- in addition to the news that David Price will not be used in relief -- made J.P. Howell the lone left-hander in the bullpen until Shouse's acquisition. Howell and Miller were used differently during the 2008 season. Howell often pitched multiple innings, facing right-handers as well as left-handers. Miller was brought in primarily to face left-handers, and he did well, making 19 appearances in which he faced just one batter, and he retired that batter 16 times.

Miller allowed just 16.2 percent of inherited runners to score (six of 37), the fourth-lowest rate in the Major Leagues, trailing Howell (11.4), Toronto's Jason Frasor (12.5) and Boston's Jonathan Papelbon (13.3). Howell and Miller were the top two left-handers in this category in all of baseball.

Meanwhile, closer Troy Percival will be trying to come back from surgery performed in December to eradicate the recurring back problem he suffered from during the second half of the 2008 season.

"Things are progressing very well [with Percival]," said Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman. "His rehab is going well. He's going to come down here in the next day or so. Until we get a chance to see him firsthand and get our hands on him, it's always a difficult thing to say. But he's thrown off the mound a couple of times and has reported that he feels great. So we'll get him into camp and monitor what he is doing, and probably won't get a real accurate sense until the second week of March or so."

Percival, 39, is signed to a $4 million contract with the Rays through the 2009 season. The veteran right-hander led the club with 28 saves in '08 despite three stints on the disabled list.

Percival's injuries kept him off the Rays' postseason roster.

When Percival was unable to pitch, Tampa Bay relied on a bullpen-by-committee approach, with Dan Wheeler assuming most of the closing duties. However, manager Joe Maddon has said on many occasions that he is comfortable with several of his relievers pitching late in the game or closing. Prominent in that group of relievers are Howell, Grant Balfour, Wheeler and Chad Bradford.

That group has been further fortified with the addition of Shouse, Joe Nelson and Lance Cormier, while being reduced with the news Bradford won't be ready until May due to offseason right elbow surgery.

"One of the things that was most important to us going into this winter was to have a number of candidates for the bullpen," Friedman said. "Injuries happen. It's part of the game. It's something that was an area where we had some exposure early in the winter. So we aggressively addressed that in our mind, and we feel like we've got a lot of very capable candidates and some very good pitchers who won't make our team, hopefully, because the health of others holds up."

Nelson, 34, worked 54 innings for the Marlins in 2008, posting a 2.00 ERA.

"I'll do whatever Joe wants me to do," said Nelson after signing with the club in December. "I've talked to him already. Wherever they need me to throw and in whatever role, I told him I will be completely available and ready for anything."

Nelson believes the bullpen will work well together.

"I have a feeling there's going to be some complementary looks [in the bullpen]," Nelson said. "J.P. throws different than me and I throw different than Grant. Wheeler, he's not as a big a strikeout guy as he is a ground-ball guy like Bradford. So I think we're all going to complement each other really well."

Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann will both be given a shot to fill the No. 5 spot in the starting rotation. If one or both of them doesn't claim that spot, each could find a spot in the bullpen since both are out of options. Rule 5 Draft pick Derek Rodriguez could also earn a spot in the bullpen.

Barring injuries, the Rays appear to have a formidable group contending for seven bullpen spots, which should be good news for fans, because the deeper the 'pen, the better the chances are Tampa Bay can defend its American League East title.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.