It took 52 games last season before the Rays had a left-handed reliever make an appearance for the big league club, this year, it shouldn't take 52 innings for a lefty to trot out to the mound. Who that southpaw is remains the question.
Casey Fossum and Jon Switzer acted as left-handed relievers last year with neither being particularly good, and the odds of either of them appearing in a game next for the team are, well, let's call it "unlikely", with Fossum last seen chucking for the Portland Beavers and Switzer on the road again. The new cast of candidates to become the Rays LOOGY - John Sickels gets royalties every time that term is used - include a former Oriole, a farm hand that had an infinite ERA for most of his September promotion, and most interestingly a former second round draft pick who hasn't pitched above AA quite yet.
Kurt Birkins is 27, the oldest of the three candidates by two months. After being claimed off waivers last month he became the most likely candidate for the 2008 "Dohmann Award" - given to the least popular acquisition that actually works out - and for good reason; Baltimore seemingly mishandled Birkins' role last season giving him two starts where he combined for four innings and 10 earned runs.
That's not to say he was overly impressive as a reliever, an ERA in the 6.5 range, but in 2006 he was decent with a 4.94 ERA. The problem is that the majority of hitters he faced were right handed, in 2006 he opposed 61 lefties and 75 righties, in 2007 65 lefties and 105 righties. That's a difference of 54 more righties than lefties. Consider his career major league lines against the either hand:
RHB - .295/.380/.481 .336 BABIP
LHB - .282/.360/.382 .353 BABIP
Now let's look at his minor league splits from last season where he faced 123 lefties and 278 righties:
RHB - .302/.356/.406 .384 BABIP
LHB - .146/.254/.244 .174 BABIP
Clearly he's better suited to face the recessive gene type, and that's the same case for each member of the trio.
Ridgway is also 27, and in three appearances last year had a 189 ERA, that's an ERA+ of 2, meaning he was worse than 98% of pitchers, that's a good start, kind of. In his defense - pun not intended - the defense was pitiful. Looking at Ridgway's major league stats is pretty useless, so instead here's his 2007 Durham numbers where he faced 87 lefties, 144 righties.
RHB - .271/.367/.458 .323 BABIP
LHB - .172/.250/.241 .237 BABIP
He throws in the mid 90's but he's a bit wild, not that any of these guys are Andrew Sonnanstine or James Shields out there, but they aren't Scott Kazmir either when it comes to strikeouts.
Finally we approach the final candidate, although he may not be in any fashion outside of my mind. On Tuesday the Rays added James Houser Jr. to the 40-man roster, and with the compulsive OCD kicking in I riddle why we shouldn't at least give Houser a look in spring training at competing for a bullpen job. He still has some time to serve for the amphetamines suspension, but that month would be the ultimate audition for Birkins and Ridgway. Upon Houser's return he could make a handful of starts in Montgomery before shooting to Durham in a relief role and then being promoted to St. Petersburg.
There are many reasons why this may not work; he's never pitched above AA, of course the other two have, as did Switzer, and that really never helped them. As a purely situational reliever in a system with a ton of left handed starting pitching talent Houser's talents could be utilized best in this role. His repertoires of a 91-94 MPH fastball and average change / curve make him the most likely candidate to move into a smaller relief role.
Then there are his splits, which aren't nearly as concentrated as Birkins or Ridgway, but still help to tell the tale; 80 at-bats against lefties, 305 against righties.
RHB - .259/.334/.449 .313 BABIP
LHB - .125/.205/.225 .138 BABIP
For further comparison of three here are their strikeouts per nine and walks per nine numbers from last minor league season:
Birkins - 3.38 BB 8.70 K
Ridgway - 4.48 BB 9.70 K
Houser - 3.43 BB 7.92 K
Ron Mahay is likely to be overpaid by the Yankees and outside of Jeremy Affeldt there aren't many worthwhile lefties on the free agent market, staying in house usually works for situational relievers, perhaps more so than any position outside of pinch runner or defensive sub types.