Now that J.P. Howell and Andy Sonnanstine are finally up from Durham, what else are Tampa Bay Devil Rays fans going to talk about? Over the last few weeks, the common question from baseball fans in the Tampa Bay area had nothing to do with the recent success of Akinori Iwamura or James Shields. Rather, the question was “Why are Casey Fossum and Jae Seo still in the starting rotation?” Although it happened later than it probably should have, Tampa Bay fans will never ask that question again.
In an expected move, Seo was designated for assignment yesterday in order to make room for Sonnanstine on the 25-man roster. If he clears waivers over the mandatory ten-day period, he will be optioned to Durham. This means that his career with the Devil Rays could potentially be over. For baseball followers rooting for him in Korea, don’t count him pitching again at the big-league level this season. Stick with Byun Hung-Kim if you want to cheer for a Korean pitcher playing for a major league team in Florida. Seo, who was arguably the worst pitcher in all of Major League Baseball this before getting kicked out of the starting rotation, was 3-4 with an abominable 8.13 ERA in ten starts for Tampa Bay. Even worse, he had a WHIP of 1.92 and opponents were slugging .606 off of him. Since he was an innings eater over the past several seasons for a few different teams, Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon gave Seo the benefit of the doubt. But even with a patient manager like Maddon, Seo outstayed his welcome with the club.
Earlier in the week, Fossum was demoted to the bullpen. His last start on Monday night, where he allowed five earned runs in the first inning against the Detroit Tigers, proved to be the last straw for the front office. His struggles as a starter over the first two months have raised questions about whether or not he fully recovered from the shoulder injury that ended his 2006 campaign prematurely. He was 3-5 with a 7.74 ERA in 11 starts before Thursday’s change. Personally, I think the bullpen is a strong fit for the former collegiate All American. First of all, he is back in a relief role, a position where he was successful as a member of the Boston Red Sox from 2001-2003. Not to mention, he adds something that the bullpen has been lacking all year, a left-handed pitcher. He looked strong in his first relief appearance of the season working a perfect ninth inning with two strikeouts in last night’s 4-1 loss to the Kansas City Royals. The thing that stuck out the most to me in his appearance yesterday was him improved velocity. His fastball was consistently in the 90-91 MPH range, nearly four miles per hour faster than his average fastball for the majority of the season.
Howell nearly edged out Edwin Jackson for the final spot in the pitching staff after an outstanding spring training. However, the young lefty was inconsistent with the Durham Bulls after being sent down after camp broke. Howell’s move came as a little bit of a surprise to several Tampa Bay fans who expected Jason Hammel to be called up. Hammel, who is 3-5 with an impressive 2.85 ERA in 11 starts, has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the International League. With the departure of Sonnanstine, Hammel now has the lowest ERA and WHIP (1.04) of any pitcher on the Bulls roster. Critics can argue that Hammel was not effective as a starter for the Devil Rays last season. He was 0-6 with a 7.77 ERA in a less than stellar start to his big league career. Nonetheless, based on performance in Triple-A alone, he is more deserving than Howell.
Howell, fairly polished for a pitcher of his age, adds another left-hander to the rotation -- to go along with ace, Scott Kazmir. He looked ready to make the transition to the big-league level in March, why should anyone doubt him now? He had his fair share of troubles for the Bulls in April, but he pitched much better in May to lower his ERA to 3.96. In his time in Triple-A this season, he was 3-5 with 64 strikeouts and a WHIP of 1.26. Whether you agree with it or not, Howell, who came over to the Devil Rays in the deal which sent Joey Gathright to Kansas City before the trade deadline last summer, will make the start against his former team on Sunday afternoon. In a brief stint with the Devil Rays last season, he went 1-3 with a 5.10 ERA in eight starts. If Howell can carry over his success from March over to his debut on Sunday, he is going to be a pleasant surprise for Tampa Bay.
In another move, Jae Kuk Ryu was optioned to Durham where he will go back to being a starter for the Bulls. Ryu was 1-1 with a 5.06 ERA in 15 relief appearances in a limited role this season. He should make his first start for Durham at the beginning of next week. He now joins Hammel, Jeff Niemann, and Mitch Talbot in Durham’s starting rotation. Jon Switzer, who was also sent to Durham, was activated from the 60-day disabled list. He took Seo's spot on the 40-man roster.
The departure of Seo and the addition of Howell and Sonnanstine is truly good news for an organization that needs a lot of it in the midst of the Elijah Dukes controversy. Heading into Saturday’s game against Kansas City, the Devil Rays were in last place in the American League East, 13 ½ games behind the division leading Boston Red Sox. I predict both of those numbers will change in the near future. Howell and Sonnanstine should have something to do with it. Both pitchers will have their ups and downs, but one thing is for sure: the Devil Rays are a much better team today than they were a week ago.