That is the question a few people had after yesterday's Rays debut for the 36-year-old right-hander. The Rays' bullpen is packed pretty tight and spaces are limited. Going by the major league contract status and minor league options available a good guess of how the Rays pen will shake out should look like this:
- Troy Percival
- Grant Balfour
- Dan Wheeler
- J.P. Howell
- Brian Shouse
- Joe Nelson
- Jeff Niemann
I'm assuming the top six are locks. Even though Joe Nelson has struggled so far, there's little to no chance of Andrew Friedman swallowing $1.3 million dollars after three bad innings in March. Spring training doesn't count for much, so without any injury or roster moves it would seem there would be no room for Isringhausen or even Lance Cormier, who is signed to a major league contract. However, that doesn't mean Isringhausen can't help the Rays in 2009.
In theory, Isringhausen could probably be released from his contract if another team is interested in him on a major league deal, but given the fact that up until a month ago nobody had offered him one and he won't make many appearances from now until opening day, there is a realistic chance that Izzy stays within the Rays organization and continue to rehab and regain strength in his arm at Durham.
"I need to pitch in every game I can," he said. "It's been a while since I faced hitters, so I've just got to build up that endurance in my arm and in my legs and everything else." --Rays Report
Much like Grant Balfour did in 2008, Isringhausen could provide the Rays bullpen with a boost in the event of an injury or general ineffectiveness, but how much does he have left? The answer lies in the health of his surgically repair elbow.
In 2008, Isringhausen was a negative 0.3 WAR. However, his velocity and K/9 remained within career levels. The difference was walks and home runs per nine. As we saw last year with Troy Percival, when you have a 30+ year-old reliever who's pitching with broken parts, walks and home runs seem to be more frequent. Another tell tale sign of an injury's effect that Rays fans are familiar with is pitch usage. We've all talked about Scott Kazmir's slider usage and how injury effected him, and in this case that also seems true. Mostly a fastball/curveball pitcher, Isringhausen mixed a slider in about 4% of the time during his career. In 2008, the slider nearly disappeared all the way down to 0.3%. He also seems to be a victim of some bad luck. While his career BABIP is a normal .291, that number was .338 in 2008. He is due for a regression back to the mean in that category which would help some of his other numbers.
Will he return to his 2002 form in a Rays uniform? Probably not, and if you're looking for Isringhausen to have an early impact on the 2009 Rays season, I wouldn't bet on it. However, as Andrew Friedman has said many times this off-season, depth is going to be vital to the Rays success in 2009 and Isringhausen is one of the keys to that theory.