PORT CHARLOTTE — The new guy introduced himself to Joe Maddon during a short get-to-know-you meeting Saturday morning.
“God, I just hear nothing but good things about this fella,” Maddon said. “He walks in, we talk for 10 minutes, I feel like I’ve known him for 10 years.”
Jason Isringhausen, who signed a minor league contract with the Tampa Bay Rays early Friday evening, is an easy guy to know. Laid-back, personable, with an easy smile and a friendly handshake.
What’s not to like?
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Nothing, especially if Isringhausen’s right elbow is healthy and he can pitch himself into the Rays’ bullpen. The 36-year-old right-hander ended his season last Aug. 16 because of tendinitis in his right elbow and a partial tear of his right flexor tendon that required surgery.
“We’re looking forward to having him out there and seeing what he can do,” Maddon said. “We’ll take it slowly in the beginning to make sure everything is in order. Obviously, he could be a big boon to us if we get this guy back and well.”
If Isringhausen can return to his 2007 form — 4-0, 32 saves, 2.48 ERA — he will add depth to an already deep bullpen.
“We talk about depth, and we also talk about you’re not playing at the end of the year without a good bullpen, you’re just not doing it. You’re always trying to make yourself better,” Maddon said.
With 293 career saves, a healthy Isringhausen could give the Rays a closer should Troy Percival’s return from offseason back surgery take longer than expected or if Percival, who made three trips to the disabled list last season, continues to break down.
If anything, Isringhausen will be another reliever who can get outs, and his use will be determined by Maddon on a nightly basis.
“I hope I’m a part of it. I want to help any way I can,” Isringhausen said.
The bullpen was one of the main reasons the Rays were able to reach the World Series last season, and it could be even stronger this year even with the loss of Trever Miller and the elbow surgery to Chad Bradford that will sideline Bradford for another three months.
Grant Balfour, J.P. Howell and Dan Wheeler are joined by Lance Cormier, Joe Nelson, Rule 5 pick Derek Rodriguez, Brian Shouse and now Isringhausen. Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel, starters competing for the fifth spot in the rotation, could find themselves in the mix for a bullpen spot as well. And then there is Percival, who may or may not be ready by Opening Day.
Shouse is a left-handed side-arm pitcher. Nelson is a right-handed version of Howell. Balfour and Isringhausen can bring the heat.
“We’re very diverse,” Howell said. “Different looks, and it helps everyone.”
That’s just what Maddon wants out of his bullpen — a different look from every pitcher, which makes it tough for opposing hitters to prepare and opposing managers to manage.
“From both sides you’re going to see a little funk with a lot of ground balls, and there’s power there also,” Maddon said. “I kind of like the eclectic nature of the pen.”
Rays vice president of baseball Andrew Friedman said the plan is to let everyone pitch until late March before beginning the process of finding the seven who will make the Opening Day roster. The health of Percival and Isringhausen will go a long way during the sorting process.
“Right now,” Friedman said, “we’re excited having that many pitchers in camp competing for jobs.”
Carlos Hernandez will start the Grapefruit League opener Wednesday against the visiting Cincinnati Reds at the Charlotte Sports Park. Maddon said he will start as many of the regular position players as possible to help celebrate the occasion.