In a controversial move on Sunday, the Tampa Bay Rays designated Heath Bell for assignment and called-up Nate Karns to give the bullpen some rest (though he wouldn’t pitch and was subsequently sent down after Sunday’s game). The reason this move was controversial is because the Rays elected to retain Josh Lueke instead of Bell. Lueke has a good, though inconsistent, minor league track record, but he has struggled mightily in his major league career. Bell, on the other hand, is just a couple of years removed from being among the best closers in the big leagues. Bell’s 7.27 ERA this season was awful and is the reason he was designated, but his abnormally high BABIP (.365), low strand rate (57.8%), and the fact that he had thrown the most pitches of any relief pitcher in baseball indicate his performance would likely have gotten much better. Yet, the Rays still elected to keep Josh Lueke because they are always keeping an eye on the future.
If you take a look at Lueke’s stats, you would immediately see his career 6.04 ERA and 4.82 ERA this season and assume he is not a good pitcher. But, it is also important to look at the scouting report to truly determine the skill that a pitcher has. Lueke has a big fastball that sits in the mid 90’s, though his velocity has been slightly down this season. He also has a great breaking ball that can be unhittable… when he commands it. He adds a splitter as well that can be a nice pitch. Lueke’s problems stem from his command. His control is decent and he doesn’t walk a ton of guys, but he leaves his pitches too high in the zone. When you are throwing in the mid 90’s against minor league talent, you can get away with leaving the ball too high. But, major league hitters are almost always going to take advantage of pitches that are elevated in the zone. This is why his minor league and major league success has been so different. The thing is, Lueke’s stuff is good enough to where he could be a late-innings reliever if he could just hone in his command. The Tampa Bay Rays coaching staff does a great job of getting pitchers to iron out their mechanics and command, and they are hoping they can do just that with Lueke.
The reason that things are complicated is because Lueke is out of options. He cannot be sent down to the minor leagues without first passing through waivers, and given his solid stuff it is likely a team would take a flyer on him if he were to be put on waivers. Lueke is under team control through the 2019 season, and the Rays feel that he can become a valuable piece of their bullpen for many years if he can indeed hone in his command, though his ability to do so remains a serious question. So the Rays had to make tough decision. Heath Bell only was under contract for the rest of this season, but he is currently a superior pitcher to Lueke. Lueke, on the other hand, might not perform as well as Bell this year, but if he can fix his issues then he could be a setup man for multiple years. However, there is a risk he will never become a viable big league option. The Rays almost exclusively make their roster moves with the future in mind. Thus, they take a bit more of a risk with Lueke, but by keeping him around they also could reap big rewards in the future.
The Tampa Bay Rays are still a small market team, and they are going to do anything to ensure that their future stays bright. We might have forgotten that fact a little bit after their spending and trading spree this offseason, but the decision to retain Josh Lueke instead of Heath Bell tells us that the Rays are still trying hard to build a future club that will stay competitive. Let’s just hope that this move works out.