The Tampa Bay Rays may have a million and one problems at the moment -- almost all of them stemming from the injury bug -- but their bullpen sure isn't one of them. Despite missing the injured Kyle Farnsworth and having to deal with some inconsistency from Joel Peralta, the bullpen has been one of the Rays' strengths so far this year.
Fernando Rodney is having a season for the ages, Wade Davis has rediscovered himself working in short stints, Burke Badenhop has been a groundball machine, and Jake McGee has become the dominant force we all were hoping for. There is nary a weak chain in the bunch....except one.
Don't get me wrong: I love J.P. Howell. I have a soft spot in my heart for him, as he was such an integral part of the 2008 club. While Troy Percival was out there pretending to still be a functional reliever, J.P was free to roam through all the high-leverage moments in the game. He may have walked his share of batters, but he more than made up for it with his tremendous curveball and strike out rate. After years of struggling with the home run ball and looking like a replacement level starter, J.P. blossumed into a relief ace at just the right time for the Rays.
How could you dislike Howell? He's a laid back California-boy that says "Dude" even more than a Valley Girl says "Like", and he wears his emotions on his sleeve. While he may not be one to throw a tantrum on the field, watching the tears leak down his face after allowing the game-winning hit to Pat Burrell in the World Series was enough to break my heart. Of all the pitchers on the Rays, why did it have to be him?*
*Not to mention, why did it have to be Burrell? That turned out to be painfully ironic.
That said, it's getting tough to ignore that J.P. isn't quite the pitcher that he used to be. It was easy enough to write off last season's results, as Howell didn't look like himself and was obviously still trying to find his groove after his shoulder surgery. But in 23 innings this year, Howell hasn't looked much better. His 5.09 ERA and 5.14 FIP don't inspire much confidence, and he has the worst results (by far) of any Rays reliever that's thrown over 10 innings.
And yet...there are some encouraging signs. Howell's problem has almost exclusively been with home runs. Although he's getting more sinking movement on his sinker than in the past, his groundball rate is the lowest it's ever been (41.9%) and he's allowing a large percentage of his flyballs to turn into homers (17.4%).
With many other pitchers, I'd write this off as a small-sample size fluke. Howell still has a great strikeout rate (21.1%) and his walk rate isn't half bad (9.5%), so why should we believe that he'll continue to have this much trouble with homers? Well, even at his best, Howell has always had a high homer rate; he posted above average home run rates in both 2008 and 2009, and his career home run rate is 13.6%. This is no uncommon struggle; it's old hat for him.
So the question becomes: how long do you hold onto Howell hoping that he can regain some of his past glory, and at what point do you cut and run? His curveball and changeup are both getting whiffs around 30% of the time, which is a solid rate but below what he was doing back in 2008-2009, when he sat above 40%. His fastball sits in the 85-86 MPH range, a touch lower than it use to (86-88 MPH), so....well, I don't know what to make of it. Depending how you want to look at Howell, you could see reasons for optimism or reasons for pessimism.
I still believe that Howell has the stuff to be a strong force out of the bullpen; maybe he won't regain his former brilliance, but he doesn't have to be a relief ace to still be valuable. But one way or the other, his time is running out. Kyle Farnsworth will be returning from his injury within a few weeks, and once he returns, someone from the 'pen will need to go. Cesar Ramos would be the easiest player to demote, as he still has options, but how do you demote someone that has a 2.08 ERA and 3.28 FIP? Ramos has shown success against both sides of the plate this season, and he's slightly younger and cheaper than J.P.
To try and demote J.P. Howell would be to lose him, as another team would surely claim him off waivers. So when Farnsworth returns, the Rays will be in the unfortunate situation of having to decide what to do: preserve some roster depth while sacrificing talent, or continue to gamble on JP.
So what sort of person are you? Do you see the glass as half empty or half full? Try as I might, I'm too sentimentally attached to J.P. to want to see him leave. I love me some Dude, even if it might be time to say goodbye.