Tampa Bay Rays reliever J.P. Howell heading to DL with weakness in left shoulder

PORT CHARLOTTE — LHP J.P. Howell, a key member of the Rays bullpen, will be sidelined into the first month of the season because of weakness in his left shoulder.

"There's no question he'll miss the start of the season," manager Joe Maddon said after Friday's 6-2 win over the Yankees.

The Rays are hoping that Howell will be able to return, maybe around May 1, after a two- to four-week rehab to strengthen his shoulder followed by a period of time to get into game shape.

"The shoulder is weak," Maddon said. "We want to try to build up the strength in his shoulder."

Until Friday, the Rays had been saying Howell was being held out of the early spring games to keep him strong late in the year.

But Maddon acknowledged before the game that there was concern over weakness in Howell's shoulder, then came word that Howell went to see team orthopedic Dr. Koco Eaton.

Howell, 26, is projected to be a key part of the bullpen, serving as a primary setup man to new closer Rafael Soriano, and valuable because of his ability to face left- and right-handers, so an extended absence would be a major blow.

The only other lefty in the pen is Randy Choate, 34, who had a solid 2009 season but has never spent a full season in the majors. Other left-handers in camp with big-league experience are Carlos Hernandez and Heath Phillips; R.J. Swindle, already reassigned to minor-league camp, has been sidelined with an oblique strain. Howell pitched well for the Rays most of last season taking over the closer's role (7-5, 2.84 ERA, 17 saves in 69 games), filling in as the closer, but tired noticeably down the stretch (going 1-2, 7.88 over his final 12 appearances) and was shut down the final 10 days. His 156 relief innings over the previous two seasons were fifth most in the majors.

Maddon said that Howell's shoulder showed a lack of strength during tests at the start of spring training but didn't categorize the problem as injury, suggesting instead it might have been the result of a change in offseason conditioning by Howell, who got married in November. In January, he agreed to a $1.8 million contract that avoided an arbitration hearing.

"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 offseason conditioning program, maybe some things that he did not do that he had done the year before, something like that."

Maddon said Howell noticed the lack of strength when throwing early in camp, so the Rays decided to have him concentrate on building up strength first with a target of pitching today.

Game details: The Rays improved to an MLB-best 12-4 with a 6-2 win over the Yankees. … After reliever Dan Wheeler pitched the first (in a plan to face frontline hitters), Jeff Niemann worked 42/3 innings, allowing two runs on six hits while striking out seven (including Jorge Posada on a nasty curve). … 3B Evan Longoria doubled in one run and scored two others. … Friday's crowd of 7,834 was a Charlotte Sports Park record.

Hello, Hank: Maddon said his initial impressions of Hank Blalock, the eighth-year big-league veteran in camp on a minor-league deal, have been good in terms of performance and personality. "I've really enjoyed getting to know this guy," Maddon said. "He showed up, he got off to a late start, he's making a good impression."

Miscellany: All players are getting the morning off with no pregame work, and the frontliners aren't playing in the game. … OF Matt Joyce (right elbow strain) continues to work on a program to resume throwing next week.

Tampa Bay Rays reliever J.P. Howell heading to DL with weakness in left shoulder 03/19/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 20, 2010 3:28pm]

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