Deep Thoughts: When JP Howell Comes Back, Who Goes?

FT. MYERS FL - FEBRUARY 22: J.P. Howell #39 of the Tampa Bay Rays poses for a portrait during the Tampa Bay Rays Photo Day on February 22 2011 at the Charlotte Sports Complex in Port Charlotte Florida. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Heading into the season, the biggest area of projected weakness this Rays team had was the bullpen. We all know the narrative; they lost too many guys, the replacements weren't good enough, etc. Those criticisms were valid to an extent, but bullpens are historically unpredictable. Look at the Rays 2008 and 2009 pens for an example. So far, however, this mish mash collection of retreads and young arms has been a boon for the team.

In roughly a month, J.P. Howell will be returning from his shoulder injury. As well as the pen has performed, someone is going to have to go to make room for The Dude. But who? Steve and I take a look.

Erik: It's been so nice watching the 8th and 9th innings with the same confidence I had last season. Except instead of Benoit and Soriano I'm watching Peralta and Farnsworth. Who woulda thunk it in December? It's not just those two that are performing well, virtually the entire bullpen has been excellent in this short 22 game sample. However,someone is going to have to go. I have one scenario in mind, but I know Steve has an opposing view. Care to lay out your plan, Slowinski?

Steve: Well, as you said, someone is going to have to go once J.P comes back from the Disabled List. He's making his first game appearance this Thursday (?) down in Port Charlotte, and while the Rays will be cautious with him and work him up slowly through the minors, the Rays are going to need to know soon who they're demoting to make room for him. And looking at the Rays' current bullpen roster, it's not an easy decision.

Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta are locks to stick around; they're our two high leverage arms right now, so they're not going anywhere. Outside of those two relievers, though, our bullpen results have been mixed so far: most of the Rays' relievers have low ERAs, but their walk and strikeout numbers aren't the most encouraging. Cesar Ramos has had some control issues, walking four batters in only seven innings, but Maddon has shown a lot of faith in him and seems to have little problem using Ramos against both righties and lefties. And then both Juan Cruz and Adam Russell have walked as many batters as they've struck out, and Jake McGee has been pretty atrocious (5.40 ERA, 6.64 FIP).

My guess, though, is that all these players stick around and the Rays do something funky with Andy Sonnanstine. He still has one option left (h/t R.J. Anderson), so the Rays could demote him to the minors without putting him through waivers first. Also, the Rays could put Niemann on the DL (if they haven't already done that by then) and slot Sonnanstine into the rotation. Either way, it'd open up a spot for Howell to enter.

Erik: Those are two ways you could go, sure. Putting Niemann on the DL wouldn't solve the issue, though. It would just put it off for a bit longer. If they demote Sonnanstine that would leave Ramos as the long man. It's certainly feasible but I don't think it's something the Rays want to do. I think the more realistic plan would be sending Jake McGee down to Durham, at least for a little while. He has thrown the fewest number of innings so far (5.0) and has by far the worst results, as you noted. He's also had some issues with his velocity, failing to maintain it for some at bats which has gotten him in trouble. Howell is a lefty, and like McGee can get batters of either handendness. McGee is a big part of this teams future, I don't see what a few months in Durham would hurt.

Steve: True, a few months in Durham wouldn't necessarily hurt McGee - the Rays would get to control his service time a bit more and he could work on some of his secondary pitches. But I just don't think McGee's issues are ones that he needs to work on in the minors. From all reports, he's got the necessary pitches to succeed in the majors; he simply hasn't pieced things together yet and could use some time to work through his struggles in the majors. Five innings is a really small sample; for comparison, he pitched five innings in the bullpen last season for the Rays and had a sparkling 1.80 ERA and 2.48 FIP. I tend to think he's got too much upside to fritter away in the minor leagues any more.

Erik: Not that he'd be used often, but you're comfortable with putting Ramos in as the long man? Do you not think he's too good of a pitcher to use so sparingly?

Steve: Eh, how important is a long man? Sonnanstine pitches in the lowest leveraged innings possible, and only gets considerable work if the Rays are getting blown out early in a game. The Rays have a seven man bullpen and haven't come close to overworking anyone so far this year, so I'm fine working without a set "long man" for a period of time. Ramos can be stretched out to work multiple innings if need be, as could Peralta or potentially Howell. It'd mean the Rays would need to get creative if they had a couple games in a row where the bullpen got worked hard, but they're pretty good at tricky roster manipulation.

What do you think McGee would get out of going to Durham? His lower velocity has been a bit of a concern.

Erik: I guess I'm not exactly as concerned about having a long man as I am about wasting Ramos' arm in that position. At this point I just think Ramos is a better pitcher than Sonnanstine and wouldn't want him resigned to mop up duty.

As far as McGee is concerned, he could get a chance to pitch more often and work through anything that is currently bothering him. It isn't like he's a veteran who doesn't have anything to learn at the lower levels.

Steve: See, I don't think it's a matter of wasting Ramos as a long man. Blowouts happen only infrequently, so it's not like the Rays would begin not using him during regular games to protect him in case of a blowout. Instead, they could simply shift everyone so that the worst pitchers in the bullpen were taking the lowest leveraged innings, while the medium and high leverage arms work the important innings. We wouldn't have one person there to soak up innings, but we'd have a higher overall talent level in our bullpen.

Erik: Agree to disagree. Of course, things could change in the month before Howell returns. Someone could implode, get hurt, be struck by lightning, etc.

And anyway, if the Rays' starters keep going 7+ innings every start, we'll never have to worry about it.

Always remember:

 

I bet if you were in some old west gang, and you were dragging a guy along the ground with your horse, It'd probably make you really mad to look back and see him reading a magazine.

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