Let’s just say that the Tampa Bay Rays bullpen has an excuse to be tired. With starters not providing length and extra innings getting in the way even when they do, Rays relievers are throwing nearly as many innings as the rotation these days, and it is putting a strain on everyone. Heath Bell had to go another inning on Saturday just one day after throwing 43 pitches, and Josh Lueke had to be brought into a big spot simply because there was nobody else available. Luckily, most of the relievers will be ready to pitch again on Sunday, but if the short starts continue, the Rays could be back in a tailspin again. With that in mind, the Rays are considering calling up a long reliever capable of sparing the other relievers the next time the bullpen needs to provide five or six innings in a game. If the Rays are going to make a move, the clear choice is Nate Karns.
When Rays fans think about a reliever coming up from Triple-A Durham, their first thought has to be Brad Boxberger, but he is not the pitcher the Rays would be looking for here. They want a pitcher who would throw three or four innings one game then get sent back to Triple-A the next day. The Rays would then replace that pitcher with another reliever, and that would be when we see Boxberger. Once we set the criteria to pitchers capable of throwing three or four innings today who are on the 40-man roster, Karns is the only pitcher left.
Karns, 26, was a big acquisition by the Rays this offseason as they gave up Jose Lobaton and two prospects to acquire him. However, his season has not begun well as he has a scary 8.20 ERA through 6 starts. Though he has struck out 33 in 26.1 innings pitched (11.3 K/9), he has also walked 18 (6.2 BB/9) and allowed 6 home runs (a scary 2.1 HR/9). Karns clearly has more work to do before he can be a realistic big league option. The Rays know Karns is going to rebound from this, but is now really the time to call him up? Just imagine the look on the faces of fans everywhere when they see that the new Rays pitcher had an 8.20 ERA at Triple-A!
On the flip-side, promoting Nate Karns, even for just one game, could be a big boost to his confidence. We have seen with pitchers like Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi that just a couple of games in the major leagues has sent them down to Triple-A as motivated as ever to find success. The Rays will not be letting Karns start, but them calling him up and reminding him that they believe in him would only be a positive experience as he hopes to overcome his current struggles. In addition, Karns may not dominate big league hitters, but the Rays would likely bring him into a game where they are ahead or behind by several runs anyway. Hopefully Karns would pitch well, but if he did not, it would not be a major issue.
Who would the Rays get rid of bring up Karns? They have four options: designating Josh Lueke for assignment, or sending down Jake Odorizzi, Logan Forsythe, or Brandon Gomes. We talked about the Odorizzi scenario yesterday, but Joe Maddon told Marc Topkin that Odorizzi will remain in the rotation. Forsythe may deserve to go down to Durham, but we would expect him to be replaced by a position player. Finally, it makes no sense to bring down Gomes, who has pitched well and is available today. So that leaves the player who has prompted the ire of Rays fans since the beginning of the season, Josh Lueke. But why would the Rays designate Lueke for assignment now when they have not been willing to do before?
The difference between now and earlier in the season is that the Rays bullpen is hurting and Lueke is doing nothing to help it. The issue is not simply that Lueke is pitching badly–we also have to factor in that Lueke cannot throw more than two innings in a game. The Rays need pitcher capable of tossing more innings for the short-term and a better pitcher for the long-term. They have those pitchers in Karns and Boxberger, respectively. Lueke would have to be placed on waivers to make another move, but he may even go unclaimed and remain in the organization anyway. If he does end up elsewhere, the Rays have the depth the survive the loss without an issue.
Having a long reliever like Nate Karns for the next couple of days would provide a major lift for a Rays bullpen that needs to be protected the next time a Rays starter gets knocked out early. It would potentially cost the Rays a player like Lueke, but Brad Boxberger is more than ready to take his spot and the Rays would be fine moving forward. If the Rays do not designate Lueke for assignment in favor of Karns before the game starts today, the only possible explanation would be a belief on Lueke that borders on the irrational.
Update (11:26 AM): Karns has indeed been called up to be a long reliever. Instead, of Lueke, however, Heath Bell was designated for assignment. More analysis on Bell leaving here.