Loss of J.P. Howell may be a more serious blow to Tampa Bay Rays than it seems

ST. PETERSBURG — The first quarter of the season is nearly complete, and the Rays have the best record in baseball.

They have won on the road, and they have won against left-handers. They have come from behind, and they have held leads late. They are off to the best start the sport has seen in eight years, and they have done it all without J.P. Howell.

So, really, how concerned should you be now that Howell appears lost for the season?

Probably more than you realize.

The problem for Howell, with a bum shoulder, is obviously a medical one. The problem for the Rays, with one fewer arm, is now a mathematical one.

It is true Rays relievers have been outstanding so far. They have held opponents to a .211 batting average and have a 2.98 ERA. But they also have been required to pitch fewer innings than almost any team in the AL, and that's actually a concern.

You see, Tampa Bay starters can not continue pitching at their current pace. Either they will hit a rough stretch, or manager Joe Maddon will be limiting their pitch counts to keep them fresh for September and beyond.

So, at some point, the bullpen will be asked to take on a more important workload. And no one has meant more to Tampa Bay's bullpen the past two seasons than Howell.

It is not simply Howell's numbers that matter, but his versatility. He could set up or close, he could pitch multiple innings and multiple days, he could pitch to both left-handers and right-handers. Howell was the perfect fallback plan whenever Maddon needed a lifeline.

"Please don't think I'm harsh for saying this, but we've already had to go out there without him," reliever Dan Wheeler said. "You're right, in some ways he's a guy you can't replace. He's been one of the best relievers in baseball, so we do miss him. But we have to move on."

Yes, the bullpen has been fine in his absence, but that's because everyone has been slotted in perfect roles. There have not been many occasions where short guys were asked to pitch long, or left-handers were asked to retire right-handers.

At some point, the workload is going to back up. And that's when you will notice Howell is gone.

This doesn't mean trouble is right around the corner. And it doesn't mean you should be hyperventilating this morning. The Rays do have options, and they do have time. They just don't have a lot of margin for error with the Yankees breathing down their necks.

Here are some possibilities in descending order:

• The stay calm approach: Randy Choate is the only left-hander in the bullpen and has been effective in small doses against left-handed hitters. Unfortunately, he has been a nightmare against right-handers, so he cannot stay in the game for long periods.

This poses a problem against a team such as the Yankees, with multiple left-handers and switch-hitters staggered through the lineup. And that means Tampa Bay absolutely needs another reliever who can come in late against left-handers. Who could that be?

Lance Cormier has had success in the past against lefties but has not been as sharp this season. Andy Sonnanstine is technically a long reliever but does well against left-handers and could see his role change.

The most likely answer is Joaquin Benoit. Coming off shoulder surgery, the former Texas reliever has looked filthy since being recalled from Triple-A Durham. Right-handers are 0-for-10 against him, and left-handers are 2-for-11.

"He's doing pretty good right now, so I think we have to give him a look-see to see if he can be that guy," Maddon said. "I've seen Benoit be really good in Texas. Really good. So let's see if he can be that guy."

• The minor-league raid approach: There are no sure answers in the farm system, but there are some left-handed possibilities. Carlos Hernandez has been effective in Triple A but has not pitched in the majors since 2004. R.J. Swindle just came off the DL in Durham but has limited major-league experience. Alex Torres, acquired in the Scott Kazmir deal, has looked sharp in Double A.

Yet, the most intriguing minor-league possibility might not be a left-hander.

Jeremy Hellickson has a bright future as a starting pitcher in the majors, but the Rays could limit his innings in Durham and use him as a late-season addition in the bullpen the same way they used David Price in 2008.

• The go-for-broke approach: If Benoit doesn't pan out and the Rays are not enthused about the minor-league options, executive vice president Andrew Friedman will have to hit the trade market.

This would probably fall under a last-resort category, but the Rays seem committed to doing whatever possible to win this season. The monetary cost probably wouldn't be much of a factor, but Friedman is not going to want to give up a decent prospect for a rent-a-player.

It's difficult to know what relievers might be available two months down the road, but it would make sense to look at veterans on teams that might fall out of contention. White Sox reliever Matt Thornton would probably be too high end. George Sherrill would be interesting, but the Dodgers could still be in the race. A mid-range candidate like Toronto's Scott Downs, in the final year of his contract, is a possibility.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Loss of J.P. Howell may be a more serious blow to Tampa Bay Rays than it seems 05/18/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 19, 2010 8:46am]

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