In 2008, Howell was a middle reliever for the most part, but did come in for a few saves during the season. He had 3 saves, but blew 2 games. He had 14 holds, which is a good number (he is more suited to this anyways). Howell also have up 22 runs and 6 homeruns, bad numbers if he was a closer. He finished the season with 39 walks and 92 strikeouts, fairly good numbers for a middle reliever, not a closer.
In 2009, Howell had more chances as the closer due to the failure of Percival (thank the gods he is gone, probably eating a doughnut somewhere). But Howell was far from perfect. He totaled 17 saves, but blew 8 games (7-5 record on the season). Howell pitched 66 innings, giving up 33 walks and striking out 79 batters. He kept opponents hitting under .200 against him, but he gave up 21 runs and 7 homeruns.
Howell (when healthy) has a very live fastball that has plenty of movement that gets hitters out in front and chasing. He also has a good off-speed pitch as well, but the problem is his mechanics on the delivery. Howell has a very odd and violent looking delivery with his pitch. As he delivers the pitch, he tends to fall to his right side, especially when he is over pitching, trying to get more velocity or location on his pitch. He comes across his body too much when he delivers, which means his command is off at times.
Now don’t get me wrong here, I love J.P. Howell, he is a great pitcher and I am looking forward to see him back on the mound, but there is no way he can be the closer. For starters, he is coming off of shoulder surgery and will probably miss some time and even when he returns he will be limited on the number of innings he can pitch. Then second part is he can’t be a closer. Howell is better suited as a middle reliever or even a set up man. Howell can come into a game, pitch one or two innings, get a few outs and give the ball to the closer. He is too wild in his delivery (look at his history as a pitcher and closer) and you will see he doesn’t have the long term command to close a game out.
The Rays are very limited this year at closer and Howell is going to be on their list of possible candidates, but don’t expect him to win the job. Benoit could come back (snowball’s chance in hell though), or a young pitcher like McGee, or the worst case scenario, bullpen by committee.