The Tampa Bay Rays’ favorite type of reliever to sign is one who will sign on the cheap yet has the ability to bounce back immediately. Fernando Rodney, Joel Peralta, and Kyle Farnsworth all fit that profile and delivered outstanding seasons in the late innings for the team. The Rays signed Ernesto Frieri in the vein of that trio this offseason, and they are hoping that he can achieve similar results on the mound. If he does, they will also have him for 2016.
There is another type of pitcher that the Rays have started pursuing, however: injured relievers who could be valuable for the future. While the Rays may have been ahead of the curve at finding reclamation project relievers, the rest of baseball is catching up and the Rays needed to be more creative. They haven’t had a success in this new category yet–Juan Carlos Oviedo certainly doesn’t qualify. However, Jonny Venters is their next candidate and gives the team the opportunity for upside with no risk.
Venters, a left-handed reliever who will soon turn 30 years of age, agreed to terms with the Rays on a two-year minor league deal. The signing was reported by Roger Mooney and later confirmed by the Rays. Venters will be rehabbing from his third Tommy John Surgery in the Rays organization this year, and the team will have the option to bring him to major league camp in 2016.
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Venters represents the second such pitcher signed by the Rays this offseason, joining Neil Wagner, and comes with an impressive big league numbers. From 2010 to 2011 for the Atlanta Braves, he pitched to a 1.89 ERA, a 9.9 K/9, a 4.3 BB/9, and a 0.2 HR/9 in an average of 82 appearances and 86 innings per season. His workload was extremely heavy, almost surely playing a factor in his eventual three surgeries, but we can certainly say that his track record of big league success is well established.
2012 saw Venters put up a 3.22 ERA in 66 appearances for the Braves, but he hasn’t appeared in the major leagues since. He underwent his first Tommy John Surgery back in 2005 and has since undergone the procedure twice more in the last three years. He will undoubtedly miss the entire 2015 season, and he faces an uphill battle to ever pitch in the major leagues again. If he does, his mid-90’s sinker and knee-buckling curveball will be long gone.
Even so, Jonny Venters was death on left-handed hitters from 2010 to 2012, holding them to just a .191/.293/.250 line with an insane 115 strikeouts against just 25 walks. He was so valuable because he could also get righties out and provide length, but is it so difficult to imagine him coming back as an effective lefty specialist? J.P. Howell transitioned from late-inning arm to that LOOGY role after shoulder surgery and Venters will hope to do the same.
What is the probability of Jonny Venters ever appearing in a game for the Rays? We can’t answer for certain, but we can say that it is extremely low. Former Ray Jason Isringhausen survived a similar string of surgeries to make it back to the major leagues, so at least we can say that it has been done before. At the end of the day, though, the Rays will be paying Venters very little money for the next two years, and given his years for the Braves, he is clearly a worthwhile risk.