For the better part of the last five seasons, J.P. Howell has been a staple in the Rays’ bullpen. Following a conversion from the rotation, the slightly built left-hander became a legitimate relief ace in 2008 and 2009. Unfortunately, the price for success was the health of left arm. He underwent surgery in 2010, wiping out the entire season and limiting his effectiveness in the next. Two years removed from the knife, Howell was once again productive for Tampa Bay in 2012, but not quite like before.
Losing Howell prior to the 2010 season felt like a huge blow. However, now that the team has lost him to free agency (Howell signed a one-year deal worth nearly $3 million with the Dodgers), it feels like the Rays are in position to be fine without Howell.
Jake McGee arrived on stage three near the end of 2011. Last season, he emerged as a budding star, replacing Howell as the Alpha-lefty in the Rays’ bullpen. His strikeout rate was the highest among American League left-handed relievers and his walk rate was the second lowest.
Though it was Fernando Rodney who received Cy Young award and Most Valuable Player votes at seasons end, one could make the case that McGee was the better pitcher. Rodney had the edge in leverage—and, in turn, saves—but McGee struck out more batters (seven percent more) and had a lower unintentional walk rate with nearly equal—and impressive—home-run suppressing skills. This is not a knock on Rodney. But more to say that McGee might have been the best reliever in baseball to not register a save last season. And going forward, he may be the Rays’ true relief ace.
Speaking of saves for a moment, one theory I have is the club may be intentionally keeping McGee away from the ninth inning. It is not about having a closer’s mentality either. Instead, like most Rays’ moves, it may be financial. Simply put, saves sell. On the open market and in arbitration, gaudy save totals cost teams millions of dollars. If the Rays’ were keeping McGee’s future value down at the peril of the team (i.e. using a much lesser reliever as closer), this would be bad business regardless of dollars saved. Yet thus far, the team has employed capable, cost-certain veterans to rack up saves while allowing McGee to flourish without the expensive stats.
Although McGee takes the baton from Howell, their games’ are polar opposites. Howell is the crafty lefty with little velocity and the need to keep hitters guessing with off-speed and breaking pitches. McGee is a fireballer. He throws a fastball nine times out of 10, inducing a whiff or a foul ball on more than 70 percent of the swings against it. Much has been made of his secondary offerings or lack there of. On the other hand, until his velocity wanes, there is no better weapon for McGee then a well-controlled fastball—the type of fastball he had in 2012 buoyed by the ability to repeat a tighter, more balanced delivery.
McGee enters 2013 as the team’s top lefty and one of the top high-leverage options overall. With that in mind, the Rays are likely to employ a second lefty to handle some of the earlier innings and pick up some of those situational one-out appearances that would waste McGee’s availability Considering the payroll constrains, as well as on-hand assets, the club is likely to fill that role—at least initially—with Cesar Ramos. The 28-year-old is also out of options which helps his case of making the opening day roster.
Like McGee, Howell, and most relievers, Ramos is a converted starter. In recent years he has worked almost exclusively in relief, however, a lack of rotation depth in Triple-A led to a brief return to the rotation in 2012. He even made a spot start at the major-league level. Considering the list of starters available to the Rays, Ramos’ future—immediate and long-term—remains in the bullpen.
Ramos has yet to play a major role since joining the organization despite appearing in 76 games for the Rays over the last two years. Though it has come under relative anonymity, he has been largely successful in nearly 75 innings of work. He has held all opponents to a sub. 600 OPS, allowing just 12 extra-base hits to over 300 batters. In 30 innings last season, he struck out nearly a quarter of hitters faced while lowering his walk rate considerably from 2011.
In addition to recent major-league success, Ramos’ past as a starter makes him more valuable than a regular replacement lefty. Although he throws with his left hand, he has been platoon-neutral thanks to a full assortment of pitches including a low-riding fastball thrown around 92 MPH and a breaking ball that gets outs on both sides of the batter’s box. A lack of splits, along with a history of starting, should allow Joe Maddon to use Ramos in both short and long relief.
This winter the team added another southpaw, Frank De Los Santos, to the 40-man roster. Though small in frame, De Los Santos can bring it in the mid-90s. He has posted favorable walk and groundball rates as a minor-leaguer. His addition to the 40-man roster could mean a September call-up with a strong showing in Durham.
Losing a player like J.P. Howell stings a bit. But the Rays already have a new Ice Man, and additional support as well.