The Rays are all about maximizing the efficiency of their roster. Yet on their 40-man roster their appears to be a player who lacks both the ability to provide a present contribution and upside for the future: 27 year old right-handed reliever Josh Lueke. This season, Lueke was downright horrific, managing just a 5.56 ERA in 42 minor league relief appearances and an 18.90 ERA in 3 major league appearances. Why keep this guy on the roster when the Rays could designate him for assignment (with him seemingly likely to pass through waivers anyway) and get a player onto the roster who could actually help the team this September?
Lueke is a good example of how misleading ERA can be. On the year in the minor leagues, Lueke’s ERA may be exorbitantly high, but he actually posted a 9.4 K/9, a 2.3 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9. That’s an outstanding 2.84 FIP. And Lueke has the stuff to be an effective big league reliever. He throws a mid-90’s fastball that isn’t straight, featuring solid run away from right-handed batters along with solid sink. His secondary pitches are a low-80’s splitter with sharp downward movement that has the ability to be an excellent swing-and-miss and groundball pitch, and a curveball around 80 MPH with big break. Lueke’s problem is that while he has decent control of his pitches, he has trouble commanding them. He leaves his pitches up in the zone too often and gets hit hard when he doesn’t. Lueke has stretches where he keeps his pitches down and the results are great. But August of 2012 at Triple-A Durham was not one of those stretches as he posted a 9.53 ERA in 8 appearances and 11.1 IP, allowing an insane 33.3% line drive rate and just 28.6% groundball rate. Yeah, he allowed more line drives than groundballs. He actually struck out 13 while walking just 1 over the course of the month, but it didn’t matter as his mistakes more than offset that. Lueke has some potential. He may even have setup man upside- his arsenal is extremely similar to Joel Peralta as both throw fastballs, splitters, and curveballs. But right now, he simply isn’t consistent enough for the Rays to give him the ball for innings of any meaning.
Why haven’t the Rays designated Lueke for assignment if he is not ready to help the big league team and there are players not on the 40-man roster who hypothetically could? We assumed above that because of his scary ERA, no MLB team would claim Lueke and he would pass through waivers and remain in the organization. Maybe that isn’t such a same assumption- why would at least one of the other 29 MLB teams not take a good arm and give him a shot? By keeping Lueke on the 40-man roster even though they have not brought him to the big leagues, the Rays are showing that they believe in his potential enough to make sure they keep him. They also are saying that no marginal contribution whatever player that replaced him would give is worth losing him.
If the Rays did designate for assignment Josh Lueke, who would they add to the 40-man roster? A couple of interesting options are first baseman/outfielder Leslie Anderson and infielder Cole Figueroa. Anderson, 30, posted a .309/.355/.450 line for Durham this season with 21 doubles, 14 homers, 56 RBI, and 56 strikeouts versus 26 walks in 116 games. Anderson can also play solid defense at first base, left field, and right field. But Anderson’s lack of plate discipline could limit his ability in the major leagues. However, considering how bad Carlos Pena has been, why not call up Anderson as at least another pinch-hit option? The big issue here is that Anderson will be owed a significant bonus (just under $70,000 at this point) in addition to his big league salary (around another $70,000) per his contract should he be promoted to the big leagues, and while the Rays are willing to pay that money, they won’t be doing that just to give Anderson 30 plate appearances the rest of the season. Injury or other circumstances may change that, but right now, Anderson does not appear to be in consideration for big league time by the Rays. Figueroa, 25, posted a .292/.362/.413 line with 23 doubles, 5 triples, 5 homers, 54 RBI, and 43 walks versus 31 strikeouts in 113 games and 452 plate appearances, with 88 games and 347 plate appearances coming at Triple-A. Figueroa can also play both second and third base. However, Figueroa is redundant on the big league roster right now because he can’t play shortstop and without any standout tools, he would basically be a pinch-hitter with good plate discipline. Anderson and Figueroa could be options for the Rays moving forward, but the Rays aren’t going to DFA a pitcher with some promise in Lueke to give either of them a few at-bats.
What are the Rays going to with Josh Lueke? Right now, nothing. Their pitching coordinators will keep working with him to keep his pitches down, and if he shows improvement, maybe he’ll be called up to the big leagues and make an appearance or two. But Lueke’s current ability is not the focus for the Rays. They’re worrying about the big picture, and they’re not going to risk losing whatever potentially he has for negligible big league benefit from another player down the stretch.