Tampa Bay Rays consider several bullpen options after injury to J.P. Howell

PORT CHARLOTTE — The implications of J.P. Howell's absence on the Rays are significant and wide-ranging.

It impacts how the remaining relievers will be used (and not necessarily how you think). Who now gets a seat in the bullpen. How the final spot in the rotation is determined. And how big of a swing Alex Rodriguez might take at the Trop.

"He's a tough one to replace, I'm not denying that," manager Joe Maddon said. "I don't know exactly how we're going to do it yet, because he's that big of a part of what we are doing here."

It's bad enough if turns out to be out for just the critical first month of the season, as the Rays and Howell are saying, and hoping, due to weakness in his left shoulder that he will rehab for a few weeks with a May 1 return targeted. And considerably worse if the shoulder doesn't respond and he needs more time, or a procedure, and were to miss most or all of the season.

"I'm cautiously optimistic that it won't be a long-term issue," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "That said, we always have to plan for the worst-case scenario."

That includes more internal than external options and, at the minimum, a reshuffling of their planned improvement to the bullpen.

As such:

• After acquiring Rafael Soriano to be the closer, the Rays were going to use Howell, 26, in the toughest pre-ninth inning situations, taking advantage of his unique ability to handle left- and right-handed hitters equally well and his fearlessness when doing so no matter the names or details.

With Howell gone, Dan Wheeler, Grant Balfour (who has had a rough spring) and, particularly, Lance Cormier will be reassigned to higher-stakes duty. Though all have had success, none have excelled consistently in those situations. "You're going to get guys in a more high-leverage moment than originally anticipated," Maddon said. "We're just going to have to do that."

All three are right-handers, but Maddon actually is more comfortable taking on the tough lefty hitters than the power right-handers, such as Rodriguez, whom he would often call on Howell to face, with good reason: Rodriguez is 2-for-13 with five strikeouts. "The lefties are not as much my concern as the righties, if you can believe that," Maddon said.

• Randy Choate may end up the only lefty in the pen. But without Howell's experience or success rate in key situations, he likely will remain in mid-inning situations, leaving Maddon to test his faith in the veteran right-handers at crucial moments.

• With the other relievers moving up a slot, the opening to actually replace Howell will be at the back end of the pen. There already was a competition between Andy Sonnanstine (if he weren't in the rotation) and Joaquin Benoit, the veteran on a minor-league deal seeking to return from arm issues, for the one open spot. Now both may make it, but there also is renewed opportunity for Dale Thayer and, possibly, Winston Abreu and lefty Carlos Hernandez.

Friedman said they will seek trade options but acknowledged it's "just a difficult thing" to get relief help this time of year: "A lot more teams are looking than selling."

• Sonnanstine had been making an impressive bid to beat out Wade Davis for the fifth spot in the rotation but may lose the competition by default. While Maddon said both could make the team and either could end up in the pen, Sonnanstine is better suited to be a reliever and has had some intriguing past success against lefties. "This situation really makes us re-think a lot of things right now," Maddon said.

Howell, meanwhile, said he was relieved Friday's MRI and exam by Dr. Koco Eaton didn't show anything "too, too serious," though there was "quite a bit of inflammation" in the back of his shoulder.

Howell said he was tired but not hurt at the end of last season (and didn't feel overused from his 156-inning two-season workload), and he did his standard off-season conditioning program (around getting married, honeymooning in Bora Bora and signing his first big money deal, for $1.8 million).

He felt fine when he reported to spring training but realized once he began throwing regularly that the "fatigueness" wasn't normal, and strength tests confirmed it.

As difficult as it will be for the Rays to replace the likeable lefty, it will be hard for Howell to watch. "This crushes me," he said. "The ship is leaving and I'll swim my way out. That's the way I'm going to get there."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

fast facts

Relief needed

With J.P. Howell, left, out, here is how the Rays bullpen may look, from top to bottom:

RHP Rafael Soriano

RHP Dan Wheeler

RHP Grant Balfour

RHP Lance Cormier

LHP Randy Choate

RHP Joaquin Benoit or RHP Dale Thayer

RHP Andy Sonnanstine or Thayer

Tampa Bay Rays consider several bullpen options after injury to J.P. Howell 03/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 20, 2010 11:00pm]

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