At one point, Juan Carlos Oviedo was an effective pitcher in the major leagues. He also had a different name. The pitcher we thought was “Leo Nunez” managed a 3.69 ERA, a 7.7 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 246.1 innings pitched between the Kansas City Royals and Florida Marlins from 2008 to 2010. That strikeout rate jumps to 8.5 in the latter three years, including an impressive 9.8 mark in Nunez’s best all-around season, 2009. Nunez relied on a mid-90’s fastball, an above-average changeup, and the occasional slider to be a solid reliever for a while. But then in September of 2011, we found out that he was playing under an assumed identity, and Tommy John Surgery in late July of 2012 ensured that he has not yet pitched under his real name. Now Oviedo enters his second year with the Tampa Bay Rays but has yet to throw a pitch. He is not even in camp yet because of visa issues, and while we can expect that to be resolved soon, it brings attention to the fact that the Rays cannot take anything for granted with Oviedo this season. Is Oviedo really as much of a lock for the Rays’ bullpen as we think he is?
This offseason, the Tampa Bay Rays re-signed Oviedo to a one-year, $1.5 million deal with $1.4 million more available in incentives. Unlike last season, they gave him a guaranteed major league salary. But $1.5 million is not so much money, and it is worth noting that it is less than the $2 million Oviedo was set to make had the Rays exercised the 2014 option in his old deal. The Rays essentially mitigated their risk should injuries limit Oviedo once again, and though they will pay him more if he stays healthy, they have no issue paying up to $900,000 more if they know he will be a contributor to their bullpen most of the season. Given the current framework of his deal, there is certainly no guarantee that Oviedo begins the season on the major league roster and not on the disabled list for a month of rehab at Triple-A. Both Cesar Ramos and Josh Lueke are out of options for the Rays, and it is hard to believe that the Rays would designate either one for assignment for a pitcher they are not positive is at 100%. But the reason that the Rays did guarantee him money is obvious: they are looking for another Joaquin Benoit.
Before coming to the Rays, Benoit had his moments of effectiveness in his 273 appearances for the Texas Rangers but also plenty of inconsistency, as evidenced by his 4.79 ERA. His ERA was a more Oviedo-esque 4.04 in relief–but like Oviedo, he had not pitched at all the year before signing with the team after undergoing rotator cuff surgery on his right shoulder in January of 2009. Of course, Oviedo has now missed two years, but Tommy John Surgery is considered a safer surgery and now Oviedo is finally healthy. Like Oviedo, Benoit managed just one season with an ERA under 3.00 before his injury, but the Rays gave him a chance and reaped the dividends. Benoit demonstrates that if you have a pitcher with a major league quality arm, he is always worth a chance if healthy. The Rays were even willing to give Oviedo a guaranteed contract to back up that point. But one big thing to remember is that Benoit did not begin the 2010 season in the Rays’ bullpen–he was not actually called up until April 29th. There is no issue with Oviedo being in the same situation. The Rays are hoping to get a valuable relief pitcher at a fraction of what he is worth. Even if that starts in May, he will certainly be worth the cost.
If Juan Carlos Oviedo has a breakout year and emerges as a dominant setup man, the Rays will be thrilled. But at the end of the day, they don’t need him to be. Oviedo has been noticeably better against righties than lefties in his career, holding them to a .711 OPS with a 3.44-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio compared to a .788 OPS and a 1.85-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio against lefty batters. If Oviedo settles in as a medium-to-high leverage righty specialist that the Rays can rely on to escape jams in the middle innings, their money will be well spent. The Rays are taking a bit of a chance with Oviedo, but they are putting him into the role that keeps the pressure off compared to years past and gives him the ability to thrive. Whether at the beginning of the season or a little later on, Juan Carlos Oviedo has the ability to emerge as a valuable member of the Rays bullpen in 2014. He has something to prove, but also the repertoire to make the rest of baseball wonder where he has been the past two years. $1.5 million plus incentives was a small price to pay for that type of talent.