It was back in June of 2006 that the Rays acquired a left-handed pitcher named J.P. Howell from the Kansas City Royals. Howell had been a former first round pick turned failed starter, and he continued pitching like that in call-ups with the Rays in 2006 and 2007. But in 2008, the Rays decided to convert Howell to the bullpen, and the results turned out better than anyone could have expected. For a two-year stretch, Howell was among the best lefty relievers in baseball and a crucial part of the Rays’ sudden emergence in the AL East, going 13-6 with a 2.48 ERA, a 9.9 K/9, a 4.2 BB/9, a 0.8 HR/9, and 20 saves in 133 appearances and 156 innings pitched. He would miss 2010 with shoulder surgery and would feel lingering effects in 2011, but he would finish his Rays career strongly in 2012, managing a 3.04 ERA in 55 appearances on the year including a 1.15 ERA and a Rays record 27.1 scoreless innings pitched from June 14th- until the end of the season. Howell re-signed with the Rays once, after the 2010 season, but unfortunately this time his Rays career is really coming to an end as he agreed to a 1-year contract worth 2.85 million dollars plus incentives with the Los Angeles Dodgers, joining ex-Rays outfielder Carl Crawford and former executive Gerry Hunsicker. Sad to see Howell go, but best of luck to him in Los Angeles and hopefully he can continue progressing back towards his 2008-2009 peak as he moves past his surgery.
Even after letting Howell leave and trading away Wade Davis and Burke Badenhop, the Rays bullpen is still quite impressive. In fact, ESPN’s Buster Olney ranked (Insider-only) the Rays’ bullpen the second-best behind only the Atlanta Braves, with the primary reasons being the dynamic trio of Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, and Jake McGee. The Rays have some work to do constructing the rest of the bullpen beyond those three, but a few free agent signings could be coming, and electric arms like Chris Archer, Roberto Hernandez, Cesar Ramos, Josh Lueke, Alexander Torres, and Dane De La Rosa are in the mix right now for the final three or four spots in the ‘pen. Ever since the Rays have become contenders, their bullpen has been a crucial part of their success, going from one of their Achilles’ heels to one of their biggest strengths. From 1998 to 2007, the Rays bullpen was 4th-worst in baseball in ERA (4.65), striking out the 2nd-fewest batters while allowing the 5th-most walks. Since then, the Rays’ relief core has been unbelievable, finishing second to the Braves in ERA at 3.48, improving to just 14th in strikeouts but walking the 3rd-fewest batters. In 2012, the Rays bullpen was at its absolute best, finishing third in baseball with a 2.88 ERA, finishing 4th in strikeouts while walking the 3rd-fewest, and the Rays will look to continue that moving forward even as some of the names change. With Rodney, Peralta, and McGee looking unhittable in the late innings and a group of fireballing middle relievers bridging the gap to get to them, expect another outstanding season from the Rays bullpen in 2013.
We’ve only talked about departures so far, but the Rays did actually make a signing, although they also let another player go. According to Baseball America’s Minor League Transactions, the Rays have re-signed catcher Craig Albernaz to a deal while releasing third baseman Felix Gonzalez. Albernaz, 30, has never hit at all and is not any sort of prospect, but he’s an outstanding defensive catcher and he has become an incredible resource for the Rays as a backup catcher, emergency pitcher (he pitched 6 times in 2012, including two games in a row once), and most importantly, a veteran presence working with the catchers and pitchers in the Rays system. I wrote back in November that I would have been “absolutely shocked” if Albernaz left, and the Rays certainly have every reason to keep him to help out their prospects. (The Rays may have also been the only team willing to offer Albernaz an opportunity to continue his playing career instead of simply instructing full-time.) It’s nice to welcome Albernaz back to the organization, and when pitchers and catchers arrive in the major leagues for the Rays, one thing to remember is that Albernaz likely played a role in their development.
Gonzalez, 22, is another all-field, no-hit type of player, but those guys are many times less valuable at third base. I liked Gonzalez’s defensive tools when I saw him, but he didn’t hit at all in five seasons in the Rays system. Good luck to Gonzalez trying to catch on with another organization.
“He’s a great makeup guy, outstanding,” Maddon said. “He goes down to the minor leagues and reinvents himself on the right side of the field. Defensively speaking, you know that pitchers love to throw to him. He’s a total gamer, a strong kid, too. He did a great job, an absolutely fabulous job.”
It’s clear from the numbers that Gimenez had a great year after being sent down to Triple-A and also that he hit well in his return to the major leagues in the latter part of the season, but what’s especially interesting is how Gimenez was able to improve his approach at the plate after being sent down to play on an everyday basis for the first time in several seasons, and we’ll have to see whether his newfound approach can keep him hitting and get him on the inside track from playing time alongside Molina for the Rays this season.
Also talked to over the past few days was Rays 2012 first rounder and top prospect Richie Shaffer, who was interviewed by Ashley Marshall of MiLB.com. The whole Q&A is an interesting read, with the most interesting parts being how apparent it is that Shaffer has tremendous character and also this part about a future position change from the third base position he currently plays.
MiLB.com: If you do get the opportunity to make it to the Majors, do you think it will be as a third baseman?
Shaffer: That’s a good question. Personally, I want to play third base, but my obligation is to do whatever this organization needs me to do to help out. If there’s an opportunity or an avenue in which I can progress faster at a different position, then I’m obviously open to doing whatever. At the end of the day, the main goal is to reach the Major Leagues, not necessarily to reach the Major Leagues at the position you want to reach it at.
If they need me to play first or they say that will get me to the Major Leagues quicker, that’s what I’ll do. If they say, ‘We’ll stick you in the outfield and you have a good chance of shooting straight up if you do that,” I’ll do that. But if all things are even and there were no differences, I work hard every single day at third base to try and become the best defender I can over there and that’s where I’d like to be. But they aren’t really my decisions to make. I just turn up to the field and play where they tell me to play.
With Evan Longoria signed long-term, everyday play at third base in the major leagues is not in Shaffer’s future, but it’s clear that he’s willing to put all the work in to get the major leagues any way he can and put all the work in to be the best player he can possibly be. Rays fans have plenty of reason to be excited about what Shaffer can do next season in his first full season as professional.
To close, two weeks from today, Rays outfielder Matt Joyce is running his third-annual “Matt Joyce Sweet Swingin’ Baseball Camp” to benefit the North Brandon Little League in Brandon, Florida that he played in when he was younger and give kids ages 6 to 13 the opportunity to learn from Joyce and other MLB players and coaches for several hours on a Sunday. Last year Joyce raised $10,000 for the league, and it’s a great opportunity for everyone involved.