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Howell Could You, Joe?

You could tell it was over. As I watched Edwin Jackson walk off the mound from his spring start on Saturday against the Red Sox, it was just obvious the way the winds were blowing. With his 4.2 impressive innings on Saturday, it was clear that the competition for the fifth starter's job was at its end. This fact was confirmed earlier today, when the other competitor, J.P. Howell, was optioned to Triple A Durham, despite the fact that neither player had made a starting appearance since that Saturday game.

So we are left to pick up the pieces from the decision, and brace ourselves for the regular season knowing that we have our final rotation put together. That Scott Kazmir will make the Opening Day start on Monday against the Yankees has been known since May of 2006, and the rest of the rotation's order was pretty well known going into camp, sans the fifth starter's job. But more than a week away from what will likely be Jackson's first start, next Saturday against Toronto, we are left to wonder. Is this finally the time that Edwin Jackson can put it all together and become a successful major league pitcher? Can he stop walking five or six batters every nine innings? Can he strike out enough batters to offset his inevitable problem with walks?

Only the tale of the tape will present the answer to these questions, but before we move forward and strap ourself in for the perennial roller coaster that is an Edwin Jackson season, I offer you a modest rebuttal for why I think J.P. Howell should still be in St. Petersburg, and why every fifth day in 2007, it should be "J.P." on the hill, and not "EJax".

Edwin Jackson

I don't want this to be an "I hate Edwin Jackson" post. I really don't, because I don't hate Edwin Jackson. I have nothing against the man actually, and being a pitcher on my favorite team with a mouth-watering arm, it is absolutely in my best interests for him to succeed. However ultimately Jackson represents, to be blunt, nothing short of a failure. Outside of a 22 inning stint in 2003 with Los Angeles, he has had no major league success whatsoever. In fact, since his 2003 debut, he has had no success at all above the Double A level. He has consistently underperformed everywhere he has gone, with peripheral stats that lend no expectation of improvement. And we just handed this person our fifth starter's job, why?

You can't just continue to tell me "Jackson has a live arm", and use that as your only reason to put him in the fifth spot in our starting rotation. That doesn't always work. It might be nice for coming up with prospect lists, but Jackson isn't a prospect anymore, he has over 100 innings of major league work and is 23 years old. He has shown nothing, and arguably the only reason he has even had a chance to show everyone nothing is because of that arm. He had no business being on a major league roster last season following his work in Durham, and was an unmitigated disaster in Las Vegas in both 2005 and 2004. If this is a "meritocracy" as Joe Maddon suggests, then on exactly what merit is Edwin Jackson standing for him to be named the fifth starter? Especially over someone like J.P. Howell.

The handouts need to stop, and everyone wowed by the speed behind Jackson's fastball and an occasional beauty of a start needs to wake up and smell the overall body of work. For every game like Saturday in which Jackson starts, there is another five starts in which he walks more batters than he pitches innings, gets hit hard, and leaves after three miserable frames.

But what about Jackson's spring statisitcs this year? Well, woe is the person who puts any stock at all into spring stats anyways. They are meaningless and carry no correlation to regular season performance. I shouldn't even need to be telling people this year after year in which we see another Jason Childers flop somewhere in the major leagues after a great spring, or see another Scott Kazmir bomb for the first four weeks and then go on to pitch a great regular season. Folks, for the most part, decisions probably shouldn't even be made in spring training, because those decisions are likely to be influenced by meaningless statistics and deceptive spur of the moment feelings, both of which as you can see have been applied to the decisonmaking process for the fifth starter's job. But even if you did go by spring stats, it is still the same old Edwin Jackson, the only difference being a higher strikeout rate and larger quantities of luck. He is still walking 4.91 batters per nine innings, for christ's sake! If Jackson doesn't manage to get a few lucky at bats the previous weekend in Lakeland, his five walks in three innings lead to what they should: an outing in which he gets bombed. As it is, Jackson lucked out.

Then some people point me to Jackson's numbers in the Venezuelan Winter League as a starter. The league in which Jackson posted a 1.32 ERA in 41 innings. Again, two more problems with that. First of all, again, it is the Venezuelan Winter League. How many batters can you name that Jackson probably faced in that league, and further, how many of them are of major league quality. Secondly, even if you were to falsely put stock in Jackson's statistics, he still walked 4.61 batters per nine innings.

The theme is clear. No matter where Edwin Jackson pitches, in useless games or not, in the minor leagues or in the majors, he still manages to walk anything and everything that he faces. Even when he does well in useless leagues, he still walks too many batters. And we are relying on this man as a starting pitcher in the major leagues?

But let's look at this a little more, shall we? Let's try to discern on what "merit" Jackson stands as our number five starter. Last year Jackson pitched in slightly more than 36 innings of work for the Rays, pitching to a 5.45 ERA. Oddly enough, that was his most successful ERA in the Majors or Triple A since the beginning of the 2004 season. But dig deeper and we see that it is the same old Edwin Jackson. On the bright side, he actually struck out batters at a higher rate than he usually does, downing 6.69 every nine innings. However, to go along with this, he also posted the highest walk rate of his major league career, 6.19. To his credit, he managed to avoid being tagged for the long ball, but he was also hit hard and that ultimately led to his failings.

It is fair to ask, however, whether Jackson should have even been in the major leagues in the first place. He was called up two weeks into the season from Durham to make a spot start in the rotation against Texas, was sent back down again to Durham and roasted there for another few months before being called up again, despite horrid statistics. He did predictably poorly, and was sent back down to Durham again, where he performed moderately better and thus was called up for the final month of the season. This poor roster management and constant yanking of Jackson back and forth between the Rays and Durham put us in the position we are today...with Jackson being left sans options and forced onto the major league roster.

Still, Jackson spent most of his 2006 in Durham, posting a 5.55 ERA. His peripheral stats were moderately successful with the Bulls, as he put up a better strikeout rate and a (slightly) lower walk rate, however he still managed a 5.55 ERA. What exactly in this screams "ready for a major league call-up", I don't know. I didn't know then and I don't know now. But it goes to a precedent of just handing things out to Jackson and giving him promotions and important roles merely on the merit of him having a good arm. Joe Maddon may crow all he like about "no more scholarships" and "merit-based roster spots", but this move is the absolute anti-thesis of that philosophy.  

J.P. Howell

Again, I didn't intend for this to be an anti-Edwin Jackson post, and I still don't want it to be. If Jackson were competing against someone like Paul Abbot, a dead end veteran bum, for the fifth starter's job, and those two were the only reasonable options for the job, I would absolutely be calling for Jackson to get it, because above all other factors, I want a young pitcher to get a chance to prove himself. However Jackson already has, and the Rays have another young pitcher more deserving of Jackson's slot in the rotation.

Often, people assume that if you don't have great velocity behind your fastball, you aren't possibly a top notch prospect and you should come second in line. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. Pitchers like J.P. Howell, who may lack the ability to sit with their fastball in the 90s, can still very well be excellent pitchers. However ultimately they are hampered in their quest to prove this because of exactly what you see today. A former phenom makes one great start that shows everything in his promise, and the team forgets the five previous shaky ones, as well as all the pertinent body of evidence before that.

Listen, those of you who have read this site since the Joey Gathright trade, which brought Howell to St. Pete, know that I haven't always been a J.P. Howell fan. I disliked the trade when it was made, and I disliked J.P. Howell's prospects as a major league pitcher. However after watching him pitch for the better part of last year, and seeing that he can get his fastball in the mid to late 80s, I know that he can potentially be a successful major league pitcher. Now, because of inconsistencies in his velocity over the last year and the lack of radar guns for which to view his speeds this spring, I haven't been able to see where he has sat with his fastball, but if healthy there is no reason it can't sit in the mid-80s, and if it can, and he can locate the fastball and get some movement on his secondary offerings like he did at the end of last season, there is no reason that he shouldn't be a successful major league pitcher.

Regardless, if you want to talk merit, Howell has merit. Howell put up a 5.10 ERA in the major leagues last season, which doesn't sound too impressive, however he also had tremendous peripherals. He struck out 7.02 batters per nine innings, higher than Edwin Jackson, while walking just 2.98. He also wasn't atrocious with his home run rate, and despite a .357 opponents' BABIP, he was able to avoid being hit hard, as his opponents' batting average was just .303.

Howell put up similarly good numbers at the minor league level with Triple A Durham, where he posted a 2.62 ERA while striking out eight per nine innings and walking about 2.5. His ERA was higher before he was traded, when he pitched in AAA Omaha, but his peripherals remained sound.

The bottom line is, other than Howell's 2005 season with Kansas City, he has been a success at every venture in his pro career. And he can be excused for his 2005 season, as his major league debut came just a year after being drafted out of the University of Texas as the 31st overall pick. You aren't drafted 31st overall if you don't have major league pitches, and while Howell will never be able to match Jackson on that account, he has something that is far more important and far more evident: merit. A word that Joe Maddon likes to use to describe the roster competition, but which ultimately ends up as just another nice-sounding word to use in the postgame quotes.

Other Factors

By the comparison above, it is plainly obvious that based on "merit" and "accomplishment", J.P. Howell should be on our final roster as the number five starter. That is clear, and if years of statistical evidence don't bore that fact out, I don't know what will. But is there any other factor that I fail to consider in my preference for J.P. Howell? One such thing has been suggested.

Since Jackson is out of options, he is ultimately going to cost us a roster spot whether he had won the fifth starter's job or not. And I agree with that, I might not like for Jackson to be in our rotation, but I don't want to lose him, and you know that other like-minded organizations would snap him up instantly if he hit the waiver wire. So, based on this, it has been suggested that Jackson was the rotation job to free up a bullpen job, as Howell goes to Durham and opens up the bullpen spot. This may be the case, but let's ask ourselves one question. Do we honestly need an extra bullpen spot? If Howell were put in our rotation as suggested, what extra bullpen spot would we need? A seven member bullpen of Edwin Jackson, Shawn Camp, Ruddy Lugo, Al Reyes, Chad Orvella, and either Tim Corcoran or Jae Kuk Ryu would have looked fine to me. But I don't think we need an extra bullpen spot for the other options available. Juan Salas, if ready, could replace the Corcoran/Ryu spot, but aside from him, there really is no one else that I would be tripping over myself to try and get a bullpen spot for. The rest are just marginal prospects and/or dead end veterans, and we don't need to be going out of our way to create extra spots for them. There is no need. Just say no to Dan Miceli and the other garbage veteran relief pitchers or fringe prospects.


The bottom line is, even using the roster manipulation theory, there is no one worth saving. This decision should have come down strictly to merit, and it clearly didn't, or else J.P. Howell would still be here. Do I think that this was a bad decision? Absolutely. Do I think that it is one that will sabotage the team? No, but I am also kind of pissed off for J.P. Howell. What more could you possibly want the man to do to become the fifth starter for your team? He puts up great peripheral stats, an acceptable ERA, and hell, even a spring with a 1.80 ERA, lower than Jackson's, and still, one start and a few lucky scenarios give Jackson the job over him. It is just frustrating to watch the team evaluate talent for their roster this way.

I don't hate Edwin Jackson, and I hope he succeeds. But he stands on no merit that would offer any positive prognostication about what he will do as our fifth starter. He has consistently failed every time as a starter and a reliever, in the minors and in the majors, and I see no changes that would result in this being any different. I hate to say it, but even if Jackson does get lucky and gets out of a few jams early on in his starts despite a high walk total, it will eventually catch up to him. The luck won't last forever, and reality will catch up to Jackson far quicker now that he is going six or seven innings instead of three or four. In my estimation, Jackson will be lucky to still be in the rotation by mid-May, and then hopefully we can see what J.P. Howell can do over the long haul.