This offseason as much as ever, the Rays’ pitching staff is in a state of flux. On the starting side, David Price is likely to be traded and Roberto Hernandez issurely out the door, leaving the Rays with a starting rotation that will look significantly different next season. Meanwhile in the bullpen, Fernando Rodney and Jamey Wright are both free agents, and the Rays will have to get creative to replace them both with capable arms while remaining within their budget. The Rays have plenty of critical decisions ahead of them in the coming months as they hope to put together any playoff team for 2014. To start things off, though, the Rays went back to the bread-and-butter strategy and signed free agent right-hander Mark Lowe to a minor league deal.
Mark Lowe, 30, is best known for being the player the Seattle Mariners traded to the Texas Rangers along with Cliff Lee at the 2010 Trade Deadline. In 2011 and 2012 with Texas, however, Lowe proved that he was more than an afterthought, managing a 3.63 ERA and a 70-32 strikeout to walk ratio in 84.1 innings pitched. Lowe then signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim for 2013, but neck stiffness and struggles when he did pitch held him to just 11 major league appearances all season. Lowe has always featured great stuff and the ability to be effective in a middle relief role. His 2013 season, though, was the latest example of the biggest thing that has held him back in his career thus far: injuries. Only once in the last four years has Lowe made 40 major league appearances, with intercostal, hamstring, lower back, and neck injuries bothering him at various times to send him onto the 15-day DL at least once per season. The Rays were able to sign Lowe to just a minor league deal because of that, and that made Lowe a near-perfect target for him this offseason. The minor league deal mitigates the risk, and if Lowe stays healthy, the Rays will reap the rewards.
Even as he struggled with injuries in 2013, Lowe’s sinker averaged 94.11 MPH according to Brooks Baseball and he paired it with an effective slider in the mid-80’s. Just two years ago, Lowe’s fastball was hitting 97 MPH. But even if Lowe’s velocity doesn’t come all the way back, there is plenty of reason for intrigue. Lowe has worekd primarily with a four-seam fastball in his career, but his brief big league time in 2013 saw him actually use his two-seamer more for the first time in his career. Lowe had some issues throwing it for strikes, but its additional movement made it harder for hitters to elevate and also forced a few more empty swings. Lowe throwing a sinker is especially interesting because we know that sinker-slider is the cliche combination, and Lowe’s increased sinker usage could potentially make his slider more effective if used correctly. Lowe even gives the Rays even have another toy to play with in his changeup. Lowe threw it just 1.47% of the time in 2013 after using it as much as 10.89% in 2013, and he actually been able to use it quite effectively over the years, forcing a swing-and-miss 22.33% of the time compared to the 13.50% league average. Could the Rays have Lowe bring back that pitch as well?
The Rays love signing reclamation project relievers, but a key for them is that they want to have a baseline to go from in terms of pure stuff. Fernando Rodney had a high-90’s fastball and an overbearing changeup and the Rays had to help him figure out where those pitches were going. Kyle Farnsworth paired his mid-90’s fastball and sharp slider with a newfound cutter and a two-seamer, and the Rays helped him mix his pitches more effectively to turn him into a late-inning arm. Mark Lowe may not have the same type of upside, but he enters the organization with four interesting pitches in his four-seamer, two-seamer, slider, and changeup, and the Rays will go to work from there. The risk is minuscule on a minor league deal, and the potential reward is an effective middle reliever and maybe more.