Josh Lueke has tantalized the Tampa Bay Rays ever since arriving from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for John Jaso. Last year was no different, he put up an outstanding 0.63 ERA in Triple-A, but posted a 4.36 ERA in 19 big league appearances. This year, he is once again struggling in the big leagues, posting a 5.93 ERA in his six appearances. Are his days as a Tampa Bay Ray limited?
Lueke’s main problem this year has stemmed from his struggles commanding the ball down in the zone. He has good stuff that even looks like it could have closer potential down the line. But, if you cannot throw the ball down in the zone, major league hitters are going to take advantage of you no matter how good your stuff is. Lueke has been so good in the minor leagues, but he has never translated against big league hitters. With every appearance that he lets up a run or two, it looks more and more like his stuff will never make the transition. He needs to perform now, but even that might not be enough to save his job.
The Rays do not currently have their ideal bullpen because of the fact that Erik Bedard and Cesar Ramos were forced into the rotation. Jake McGee is the sole lefty in the bullpen, and they have no one capable of throwing four or five innings if needed. Thus, we might see some bullpen re-arrangement soon. Brad Boxberger was recently brought up as the final reliever and he has been stellar in the early going, throwing two shutout innings. His stuff is just as good as Lueke’s, but he has had better command of all his pitches, and has looked like a much better pitcher than Lueke so far. With Boxberger impressing, Lueke could be the one to go if another bullpen move is indeed made.
Also, Juan Carlos Oviedo is set to return within the next week. His rehab at Triple-A Durham has been going well, and he is starting to regain the form he once had as a closer with the then Florida Marlins. The Rays did not sign him to a $1.5 million deal with another $1.4 million in incentives just to release him, so he is a sure bet to take over a spot in the big league bullpen. As mentioned, Boxberger could be sent back to Triple-A, but with how dominant he has been, the bullpen would be worse off without him. Thus, even if the Rays don’t re-arrange the bullpen until Oviedo is ready to return, Lueke could still find himself the odd man out.
The biggest thing that Lueke has going for him is that he is out of options. Despite struggling with his command so far in his big league career, his stuff is too good to completely ignore. Lueke cannot be sent down to the minors without passing through waivers, and it is likely that a team would at least take a flyer on him because of his stuff. If Lueke is replaced in the bullpen, he is almost guaranteed to be on his way out of the Rays’ organization. The Rays do not want to give up depth, and they also do not want to give up hope on a pitcher that still has promise. Thus, they might be willing to give Lueke more than enough chances to establish himself this season before they risk losing him on waivers.
The Tampa Bay Rays face a tough decision with Josh Lueke. With at least one bullpen move coming soon, the Rays have to decide if they believe that Lueke can overcome his early season struggles and finally reach his potential. Right now, the Rays’ bullpen is probably not at its best with Lueke in it. But if Lueke can hone in his command, then the bullpen could be better for years to come. It is a tough decision to make, but we do know that it is one that Andrew Friedman and the front office usually get right.