Key reliever J.P. Howell has shoulder weakness, will miss start of season
UPDATE, 10:54: Some more from Maddon:
* "The preliminary indication is the two- to four-week rehab situation and then after that the actual throwing and then building it back up to game speed.''
* "We don't have anybody that can actually fill that role. If you look at what he's done the last two years and what he brings to us in regard to the matchup situation, I'm really comfortable with him pitching against the other team's best hitter at any time, and that kind of guy is hard to find. We're going to try to figure it out over the next two weeks and just try to make our best guess on it and go from there. But he's very difficult to replace.''
* "Everyone is going to get looked at. ... Right now it's hard to see it, because what he brings to the table is unique, so it's going to take a little bit of more thinking and planning on our part.''
* The replacement won't necessarily be a lefty because "we have a lot of rightes that handle lefties so I'm not really concerned about that.''
* Other pitchers with big-league experience that figure to get consideration include: Mike Ekstrom, Dale Thayer and Andy Sonnanstine (assuming he doesn't win a rotation spot), who are all on the 40-man roster, and non-roster invitees Winston Abreu, Joaquin Benoit, Jeff Bennett, Carlos Hernandez and Heath Phillips.
UPDATE, 10:24: Maddon said there is "no question" Howell will miss the start of the season, preliminary reports are that he needs 2-4 weeks of rest and rehab and then start working back into form so a return of around May 1 is possible.
UPDATE, 7:08: Howell wasn't here for a reason. He went to St. Petersburg to see team orthopedic Dr. Koco Eaton. No update is available yet from the team.
UPDATE, 5:56: Adding to the intrigue, Howell is not at the Charlotte Sports Park tonight.
DEVELOPING: LHP J.P. Howell's absence from spring training games, billed as a plan to keep him stronger for the full season, actually has been due to a lack of strength in his shoulder, and there's a chance he may not be ready for the start of the season.
"If we don't get him going soon it could possibly jeopardize the beginning of the season,'' manager Joe Maddon said. "There's a possibility.''
The Rays had targeted this weekend for Howell's debut, but Maddon said it is now uncertain when he will start throwing in games, and revealed than when Howell reported to spring training tests showed the lack of strength in his shoulder.
"(Head athletic trainer Ron Porterfield) did not like the strength level when he came here so with that he wanted to, before we had him throw a lot, just to really make sure we went and built up strength first,'' Maddon said. "That was the whole issue, and it was based on previous testing. And of course J.P. could feel it a bit when he was throwing that he didn't feel as strong so we decided to just back off it and try to get that thing strong before we move forward with it.''
Maddon said the weakness is not from an injury but possibly from a lapse in off-season conditioning. "At the end of last season, he left in good shape, so it's not from an injury,'' Maddon said. "Probably had something to do maybe with his off-season conditioning program, maybe some things that he did not do that he had done the year before, something like that.''
Howell had been set to pitch for the first time either Saturday or Monday based on who you asked; Maddon said he definitely won't pitch the Saturday, and a new target date may be set in a meeting tonight or Saturday with Howell, pitching coach Jim Hickey and the staff. "I really thought it would be this weekend also,'' Maddon said.