Reshuffling the bullpen has become a tradition for Andrew Friedman. Barring any significant changes from now until spring, the Rays will enter 2012 with a mostly static unit. Four of the seven pieces are locked in place: Kyle Farnsworth and Joel Peralta will handle the late-innings situations, and Jake McGee and Brandon Gomes will man the middle innings. That leaves three spots with newcomer Josh Lueke likely filling one. With 2011 contributors like Cesar Ramos, Dane De La Rosa, and J.P. Howell still looking for a spot-that is, assuming they are still on the roster and that another reliever is not added on a major league deal. Ramos and De La Rosa will likely remain on the 40-man, but Howell might not be so lucky.
To write that Howell has had a rough two years would be an understatement. He missed all of the 2010 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, and only found success against left-handed pitching during his 2011 return; holding lefties to a .222/.279/.302 line with four strikeouts per walk. Compare that to Howell's overall 5.41 FIP and 5.28 walks per nine innings pitched and classifying his pitching versus right-handed pitching with an expletive is an accurate description. A contrast from Howell's better days, when he was one of the most reliable relievers in the game.
From 2008-2009, only five other relievers threw as many innings as Howell's 156. Of those pitchers, only Ryan Madsen collected more Wins Above Replacement player, edging Howell out by a run-2.5 to 2.4. Two years will have passed since Howell's surgery by opening day, but the Rays will have to answer which Howell they expect to show up much sooner, as the arbitration deadline falls on December 12. Howell made $1.1 million last season, and because players are virtual locks to receive raises, his 2012 salary could increase near $1.5 million.
Relievers are the most fungible assets in the game, and since the Rays aren't gushing with money they could decide that $1.5 million for a potential LOOGY is too much. That may lead the Rays down the same path as last offseason, when they non-tendered Howell and then re-signed him for less money. The risk there is that Howell could find a wealthier deal elsewhere. If that sounds off, just remember that reasonably priced left-handed pitching gets ate up. Especially those with track records like Howell's-just look at the two-year, $8.5 million deal Javier Lopez signed.
Also factoring into the Rays' decision is whether there is a clear superior either in-house or on the market. If the Rays favor cost savings, then Ramos makes the most sense. Acquired in the Jason Bartlett trade, Ramos will make the league minimum and has shown lefty specialist chops during his major league days with a .221/.299/.295 career line allowed. Compare that to the top left-handed relievers available-Mike Gonzalez, John Grabow, Darren Oliver, Arthur Rhodes, and George Sherrill-and Ramos comes out looking like the best option given performance and likely cost.
Howell gained no fans last season, and allowed some untimely hits down the stretch that bred bad memories. Those don't die easily, but he could provide the Rays with legitimate value next season should he return to form. If not, it would be the end of one era and the beginning of another. But the Rays have gotten used to that by now.