Rays Friedman: Howell won't be ready to start season, and other notes
UPDATE, 8:46: Howell, naturally, is optimistic that he won't need much additional time to return. In a text message Wednesday night, he wrote: "If I'm not ready by opening day, it won't be by much, maybe mid April!"
DEVELOPING: The biggest news to come out of Rays executive VP Andrew Friedman's pre-winter meetings press session today was the acknowledgement that reliever J.P. Howell won't be ready to start the season.
Howell underwent shoulder surgery on May 23 and at the time both he and the team expressed optimism he would be able to return by opening day. But Friedman said Wednesday that Howell - who is working extremely hard in his rehab - won't be ready, and they are not sure at what point of the season he will be.
"I don't know right now,'' Friedman said. "He's been incredibly diligent in the rehab process, he is as motivated as he can be to get back, and I think one thing all of us have learned about J.P. is to not bet against him, but it's going to be difficult. It's going to be something that's hard to predict until he gets back on the mound and starts throwing pitches. I would definitely anticipate him missing some time, but I think it's hard to say whether that's coming back in May or July.''
The Rays obviously could use Howell as the reconstruction of their bullpen is the primary off-season challenge as six relievers who pitched significant innnings last season are free agents - Grant Balfour, Joaquin Benoit, Randy Choate, Chad Qualls, Rafael Soriano and Dan Wheeler. A seventh, Lance Cormier, could be if he is not tendered a contract by Thursday's midnight deadline.
Among other topics, Friedman said:
* The process of rebuilding the team will be ongoing through the off-season, likely through a combination of trades, free-agent deals and minor-league signings, and there is no pressure to make any deals at next week's meetings in Orlando. Their key will be to "stay nimble" and be prepared for all possibilities and opportunities.
* Neither LHP Jake McGee nor OF Desmond Jennings are locks to make the opening day roster, with both having to show in spring training that they wouldn't benefit from more time at Triple-A.
* This will be a key year for OF Matt Joyce to show he is capable of being a frontline player, though it's not clear yet based on the roster if he will get the chance to play every day or will be platooned and face primarily just right-handed pitching. Also unclear is whether he would play left- or rightfield.
* There is no plan or desire to trade one of their six starting pitchers - David Price, Matt Garza, Wade Davis, Jeff Niemann, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson - as they prefer to go to spring training with the depth and decide then whether to move one to the bullpen. "If something is so compelling that lines up perfectly with our short-term and long-term objectives, sure (but) you could say that about anything,'' he said.
* Athletic trainer Mark Vinson, who had been their minor-league coordinator, will join the big-league team as the third trainers, replacing Nick Paparesta, who went to Oakland.