Results tagged ‘ Mike Ekstrom ’

The Dude’s 2010 Rays Wild Ride

 

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It has been a pretty wild ride for Tampa Bay Rays reliever J P Howell since the New Years shiny ball first dropped on January 1,2010. Fresh off his off season wedding nuptials and a honeymoon in the exotic locale of Bora, Bora, the Rays southpaw was experiencing a high point in his life and career after signing a $ 1.8 million salary through arbitration on January 19th for the 2010 season. Little could Howell have known that within the next 30 days, his life and baseball world would begin to resemble the Disney’s Mr. Toad Wild Ride rollercoaster.

When the Rays pitchers and catchers first came out of the clubhouse and strolled to the practice field in late February, Howell was the first Rays player to come up and chat with me at the Rays complex in Port Charlotte, Florida. He was bouncing around like the Winnie-the-Pooh cartoon character Tigger out on the outfield grass just beaming with enthusiasm and spouting the tales of his off season. We all were totally oblivious to the winding turbulent ride that Howell was about to encounter during 2010.

The southpaw first began to experience weakness and pain in his left throwing shoulder during the early workouts even before the Grapefruit (Spring Training) season began and he was subsequently would be shut down for further evaluation by the Rays medical staff. Howell even commented to the St. Petersburg Times on March 30,2010 that he “encouraged” by a recent strength test performed by the Rays medical staff on his wounded left wing. Howell was so convinced of the success of his rehabilitation that he felt he could possibly be back in the Rays Bullpen by mid-to-late May. Little did Howell know that his wild rollercoaster ride was only about to begin.

The Rays finally scheduled a simulated game session for Howell at Tropicana Field on May 17th in hopes of possibly sending Howell on a short rehab assignment in the Rays system after the game simulation before bringing back to the MLB roster. Howell suddenly stopped throwing after a total of 12 pitches. His wild adventure was about to make one of it’s darkest moments surface right in front of him. Howell immediately went straight into Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield’s room in the Rays clubhouse.

After a short examination, a Rays teammate was seen bringing Howell’s clothes to Porterfield’s trainer’s room. Before that evenings game against the Cleveland Indians, Rays Manager Joe Madden spoke to the media and told them that Howell had suffered a “setback” and that he would be re-evaluated by the Rays doctors. It was the beginning of the steep rise and then quick freefall for Howell during 2010.

The darkening prognosis was further amplified by the blinding fact that Howell, who was usually one of the most out-going and quotable Rays players mysteriously snuck out of Tropicana Field without talking with anyone. The Rays had him visit Dr. Coco Eaton, the Rays staff orthopedic physician. After an examination by Eaton, it was advised that Howell seek a second opinion from Rays Medical Director Dr. James Andrews in Birmingham, Alabama. Suddenly the coaster ride again began another rising ascent to the top.

Just 24 hours later the Rays announced that Dr Andrews would perform surgery on a damaged left labrum and that Howell would be lost until possibly May 2011. Suddenly one of the Rays Bullpen bright candles had been inexpertly extinguished without throwing a single pitch.

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After the announcement, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman revealed that when the Rays first got news of the weakness in Howell shoulder, the team envisioned possibly losing him, but held out hope that Howell could have been back at some point for 2010.The surgery dashed all hopes of a return to the Rays Bullpen for Howell.

Friedman spoke to Howell before he underwent his surgery on May 23rd and Friedman stated, “Obviously he was frustrated, it was an emotional moment for him, going through this for the first time,” Friedman said. “He’s in great hands, he’s a great worker, great competitor, so I would certainly never bet against him.”


After his a short stay in Birmingham, Howell returned to the Tampa Bay area, and released a few statements through the Rays PR Department on his surgery. “I feel like I just went 12 rounds and only punched with my left hand. It feels good to be moving forward and not sitting in limbo wondering what’s wrong. Now each day is a step forward.”

I saw Howell for the first time when his wife was promoting her children’s book, “The Adventures of Dangles” at the USF-St. Petersburg campus during the Times Festival of Reading event. His hair and beard had darkened a bit as hide behind the main area wanting his wife to have her day without any distractions. We spoke for just a brief moment as he quickly told me his rehabs were going great with the Rays staff and in his sessions in Birmingham, Alabama.

Some of his time away from the game had helped him focus his family’s involvement with discoveryourpath.com, which was a charity his wife and him both enthusiastically support.
At that moment I initially had the feeling his rollercoaster ride might finally be in its final deceleration stage. But there was one more gut wrenching twist to come.

On December 1st in his pre-Winter Meeting press session, Friedman advised the Rays Republic that Howell would definitely not be starting the season with the Rays. That ended a stream of optimism that Howell could/would be back with the team by Opening Day. Friedman added that Howell was working extremely diligent during his rehabilitation, but would not be ready by April 2011. Instantly I heard the click, clicking sound of the coaster car again as it ascended to the ride’s summit.

Howell was a key component to the rebuilding process of the empty Rays Bullpen that presently only has pitchers Andy Sonnanstine and Mike Ekstrom initially returning for 2011. With this latest news of Howell missing the beginning of another season, combined with an upcoming arbitration decision by the Rays, there was a ever growing cloud of doubt suddenly hanging above Howell’s name.

When the Rays finally unveiled their plan to non-tender an arbitration offer to Howell for 2011, most immediately thought the Rays reliever was destined to not be a part of the Rays rebuilding process. Most saw the move as a cost cutting measure to insure that Howell would instead sign for less than the projected $ 2.35 million dollar arbitration amount. The pure fact that Howell openly stated that he “wanted to be a Ray” spoke volumes about move.

This was just a calculated fiscal move that guaranteed the Rays some financial give and take with Howell. The non-tender gave the Rays a loophole around a rule that limit’s the reduction of a player’s salary to 20 percent ($ 1.44 million). In the background, Howell and his agent were furiously working on a contract when the Rays made their intentions public. Suddenly the rollercoaster ride that seemed to be going downwards fast ultimately ended up taking a upward motion.

On December 13th, exactly 11 days after the Rays initial decision to non-tender Howell, it was announced that the team finalized a $ 1.1 million salary plus incentives for the 2011 season. Howell again could regain a place in the Rays Bullpen at some point in 2011.

 
The rollercoaster ride had finally emerged from its trip into the darkness and a burst of sunlight is illuminating warmth finally onto Howell. Somewhere between St. Petersburg and Birmingham you know that Howell is again doing that Tigger dance, but this time mentally to protect that shoulder until he finally pulls on his number 39 Rays jersey in Tropicana Field during the 2011 season. Can’t wait to see him.

 

Rays Bullpen Undergoing Extensive “Renovations”

 

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 Mike Carlson/AP

Just when I thought I could feel a tad secure about the Tampa Bay Rays unstable Bullpen situation, Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman has to drop another bombshell on the already scarred Rays Republic. With the recent revelations that even Rays stalwart reliever Grant Balfour is shunning the Rays arbitration offer, the team has quickly seem it Bullpen’s health go from unstable to critical.

With a upcoming contract tender decision today concerning Rays long reliever Lance Cormier and Rays jack-of-all-trade Andy Sonnanstine, there was bound to be another interesting twist or two before the Rays began to effectively rebuild their Bullpen and possibly contend again in 2011. But the bomb that came out of Friedman’s mouth yesterday during his pre-Winter meeting press junket might have delivered a death blow to the Rays post season aspirations for 2011.

I instantly felt like Daniel-san from “The Karate Kid” with a hearty leg sweep taking me out and sending me to the canvas. Suddenly the foundation I thought was flimsy but fixable, might just be undergoing a major overhauling. Maybe I invested too much into hoping, praying, thinking that Rays southpaw reliever J P Howell could somehow be that impending shining light we would need in the Spring of 2011 to blaze a Bullpen path.

Instantly, that foundation, that hope of some stability was swept clean, at least for the first few months of the 2011 Major League Baseball decision. Friedman had very encouraging words about Howell’s rehabilitation program since his 2010 shoulder surgery, but the only words echoing through my mind again and again was the possibility he would not be available until May or June. With just those few words it seems that a total transition of the Rays Bullpen was underway, and would Sonnanstine and Cormier be spared from the purge?

In reality, the Rays Bullpen went quickly from a slight rebuilding mode to a full blown reconstruction mode even if Sonnanstine and Cormier are brought back for 2011. Howell was thought to be some of the glue that might bond this unit tighter with his hugely optimistic attitude and energy. But with Friedman’s announcement of a possible road bump in his rehabilitation process, Howell quickly goes from a veteran cog of the Rays Bullpen 2011 machine, to an in-season inserted piece.

Suddenly the instability of the Rays Bullpen reminds me of those moving grass patches in the Florida Everglades that on the surface look like solid ground until you walk on them, then you fall through into the murky water below. Even with young arms like southpaw reliever Jake McGee and righthander Mike Ekstrom possibly returning for another Rays extended gig, Friedman made it clear that McGee would have to prove himself this Spring or possible start the season with the Triple-A Durham Bulls.

With the Rays possibly carrying 12-13 pitchers going into the 2011 season, suddenly only the starting five of James Shields, Matt Garza, David Price, Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann seems to be on any form of solid ground for now. But we have a long way to the Rays first reporting date of February 13th and anything can happen. If the Rays do consider carrying 12 pitchers’, that would mean that 7 new faces could possibly enter the Rays Spring Training complex in Port Charlotte, Florida on that date. I hope the team is stocking up on ” Hi! My Name is….” tags.
 
 

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Such a major re-configuration to the Rays late inning staff could take them immediately out of the thought process of contending during 2011 and might have damage their post season aspirations for several years. Suddenly the once solid and reliable Rays Bullpen unit is a shadow of its former self. And with the Rays farm system a bit discombobulated after 21 minor league free agents were not offered an olive branch by the parent club, more change is expected.

Going into the Winter meeting in Orlando, Florida the Rays might be going on an extended window shopping journey to see just what affordable options lie within their price range in the free agent and trade routes in regard to relief help. It could easily be considered that any trade even on the back burners would have to have at least one farm hand or MLB ready reliever to even be considered. With the Rays closer, leftie specialist and 3 key set-up pitchers possibly having played their last game wearing the Rays unis, the team might be in definite stealth “buying” mode.

It is a long way to February 13th, and the Rays could possibly entertain a multi-year offer with Balfour, or possibly have the chance to sign Wheeler to a lower salary figure than his declines $ 4 million option and retain some form of reasonable back end stability to the Rays Bullpen. Tendering 2011 contracts to Sonnanstine and Cormier could alleviate a bit of the Rays relief flux, but would only be a band-aid on the seeping wound.

With a limited payroll the Rays will have to effectively find a legitimate closer, a few set-up men and possibly a left-hand specialist. Even with the influx within the Rays Bullpen, McGee and Ekstrom will have to prove themselves to even be considered in the Rays overall relief equation this Spring. What was once a steady and reliable relief unit has quickly turned itself sideways and could be at its weakest point since Rays Manager Joe Maddon took the Rays reigns.
 
 
 

Rays Bullpen is On the Clock

 

 

As I look up at the big clock on the kitchen wall, I can see the second hand moving fast and it instantly reminds me that the Tampa Bay Rays only have a few more days to actively pursue their Free Agents without any outside interference. The clock seems to be ticking faster by the moment during these first five days after the World Series before the Rays Free Agents officially become fodder for the rest of the Major League General Managers and scouts.


There are more than a few players from the Rays current 5-days hold list who will probably never wear a Rays uniform again, including such highly valued names as 2010 All Stars Carl Crawford and closer Rafael Soriano. Two biggest names at their respective positions that should in all likelihood leave the Rays roster this Winter.

There are other who will also garner attention from all over the Majors after the 5-day grace period like former First Baseman and power option Carlos Pena, 2010 surprise RP Joaquin Benoit, plus relievers Grant Balfour and Randy Choate could harbor another home stadium in 2011.

But the Rays have five days, or a total of 120 hours to actively talk back and forth with their Free Agents before they are officially released to also have talks with the rest of the MLB mob. Five days really is not a long time to trade numbers back and forth and try to finalize a deal, but it is enough time for the Rays front office to make an impression on if they are actively seeking a return, or willing to watch their former players mosey on out to greener monetary pastures.

There were two more names thrown into the mix recently as the Rays decided to decline the team options on Rays reliever Dan Wheeler and utility player Willy Aybar. The move was considered a financial move to possibly save the club almost $ 2 million dollars by buying out the pair, then talking to them as a Free Agent (Wheeler), or a still arbitration eligible player (Aybar). Wheeler has expressed a desire to remain with the Rays for 2011, but it will have to be at a bit of a discount from his $ 4 million option.

 

Basically right now, the Rays Bullpen bench has been stripped almost bare with only Andy Sonnanstine, who is arbitration eligible for the first time this Winter the only player currently with any extended relief appearances. Sure there is still Mike Ekstrom and rookie southpaw Jake McGee who are still on the Rays 40-man roster, but beyond this trio, the rest of the Rays Bullpen is either heading towards the Free Agent market or already been released by the Rays (Lance Cormier). Right now the Bullpen is the biggest position of transition for the Rays this Winter.


Right now the Rays entire sixth through eighth inning options are within a few days of actively finding another pitching spot for 2011 unless the Rays decided to actively pursue any of them. In a perfect world I would love to see the Rays try and keep Benoit, Balfour, Choate and possibly Wheeler to bring some form of veteran stability to the Rays 2011 Bullpen. I would however personally hope that the Rays do not actively engage in discussion with reliever Chad Qualls who is also set to become a Free Agent soon.

Currently this drastic change within the back part of the Rays pitching game has to have more than a few fans sweating bullets, but there are loads of viable options that will soon be available to the Rays, but at a cost.

Every time you bring in a new pitcher to the Rays system there is always the possibility of them not adapting to the Rays pitching game plan and becoming a liability. That is why I am hoping the Rays at least think long and hard about the quartet of Benoit, Wheeler, Balfour and Choate before releasing them to the rest of the salivating masses in the MLB.


There is the underlying huge question mark concerning returning leftie J P Howell’s effectiveness, and the possibility that the Rays could decline him arbitration possibly this off season to set another storm into motion. Combined with Howell’s uncertainty plus the youth and inexperience of McGee, it might not be a huge leap to consider Choate as a viable option for 2011 at least until the two question marks are answered.

It might be unorthodox for the Rays to possibly carry three left-handers in their Bullpen, but would it be more of a disaster to count on the two question marks totally with only minor leaguer southpaw R J Swindle in the Rays system as a back-up plan.


 

The addition of retaining Balfour and Wheeler would give valuable experience and proven set-up power and abilities to a new Rays Bullpen. Balfour seemed to come into his mown after returning from the DL (thanks again Jim Hickey) in September to post some of his best outings of the season.
 
Balfour also seemed to have gained some extra velocity after his short mid-season rest. Of the two pitchers, Balfour might have the best Rays upside and could be the most fiscally affordable considering the Rays payroll downsizing to possibly between $ 40-60 million for 2011.


The Rays front office will have to scrape and save all over the place considering the team already have a projected payroll of about $ 15.45 million even before adding arbitration figures and considering Free Agent signings. The initial scraping of almost the entire Rays Bullpen will either be a blessing or a curse this Winter and a major discussion point by the Rays Republic until the Spring.

Can a team like the Rays that has already been considered a early favorite to head towards a post season run in 2011 sustain themselves if they purge and rebuild their Bullpen from within their farm system and the Free Agent route?

The next five days may hold a key to the Rays thinking, and their possibly plan of attack. Sure I would love to see Benoit possibly resign with the Rays and take on the closer’s role. Would be ecstatic to see Balfour and Choate become leftie-rightie bookends to extinguish scoring chances late in the game.


But the stark reality is that the Rays will be a team in late inning pitching transition this Winter. With a few left-handed question marks and only a handful of MLB experienced help currently on the Rays roster, this Winter the Rays Bullpen might be a total work in progress.

Hopefully the Rays front office will be sensible and find a nice balance between the old and new that will compliment the Rays starting rotation. This off season we might truly see just how good Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman is with his crystal ball and a desk full of statistical reports and flowcharts. Somehow the Rays need to pull that mythical rabbit out of the hat this Winter.
 

 

Rays Pitchers & Catchers Report…2010 Edition

 


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**** Within the next few days I will post a extended Photo blog of the pictures I took today after the Rays Fan fest tomorrow afternoon.


I could not sleep a wink last night and thank goodness AMC had a pretty good movie lineup until 6 am this morning. This felt like the first time I ever suited up for a baseball game. I had the butterflies early today and mixed with the anticipated assembly again with Tampa Bay Rays baseball players who I consider “baseball buddies”. And the long hours leading up to this special moment of the Rays pitchers and catchers reporting for 2010 more than lived up to all the previous night’s hype and anxiety.

Sure you would think the hour and a half drive down to Port Charlotte from the shadow of Tropicana Field would seem to take forever as the sun began to rise in the East, but the reality was it seemed to furiously fly by with only the time staring to ebb slower as I began to wait first in line this morning to get into the Charlotte County Sports Park and “officially” begin my 2010 Rays experience. And it was great to not have the over indulgence of the Mosaic Corporation’s name attached to signage surrounding the complex today. And as I was standing there as the Rays media members began to assemble, some just passed by, while others acknowledged me standing their in my Pepsi sweatshirt as I battled the 56 degree weather.

And while I was standing there, a wild figure in pink sweatpants, barefoot and a huge poof of hair began to walk up to the security checkpoint carrying his baseball gear in a Army green dufflebag. He had come to make the team, and Edgar Gonzalez was not going to take “no” for an answer. Sure he might not have had great baseball experience only playing Marine Corp baseball, but decked there in his USF baseball jersey ( but did not play at all for USF), he was energetic and wanting an audition today for a possible slot on the Rays.

 
 

And two assembled security guards were business like and totally professional as they tried to point him towards Tropicana Field and the Rays Front Office to arrange an “official arrival” or even a slot to participate when the minor league camp came in next week. But Gonzalez was persistent and totally seemed to have his wits about him, until he began to unravel his story into a million pieces by saying he was trying to hold correspondence with U.S. President Obama and the world leaders on the curing properties of baseball. So as Gonzalez began to fade to black in the minds of the security force, he was advised to “put shoes on, or vacate the property as a safety precaution”.

 
 
 

Just then, you could see the color drain from Gonzalez’s face and he knew instantly that he had blown his scheme to try and infiltrate the Rays first 2010 workout. But I do commend the security force for doing it with grace, class and not singling him out and making the situation difficult. So as he turned away he said he would rehash it out up in “Tampa” with the Rays officials and be back another day to formally take the field. Well, Edgar Gonzalez, I wish you luck, and I hope you do get that shot, but since you have, by your own admission, never faced a 90+ mph fastball or seen a slider in your life, the audition might last the $ 2 it costs to run the Batting Cage machine at the Mini Golf complex down the street.
 

 

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But as 10 pm came, I strutted in first in the line and was handed a Dioner Navarro and Matt Garza bobble heads and a great present of a Rays Spring roster cardboard placard that listed each invited Rays ” guest” to the 2010 Spring Training complete with the final statistics including every stop during 2009. I scanned up and down it a few time to see the names and former 2009 teams illustrated and saw a few extremely interesting names. Names like Mike Ekstrom who was claimed off waivers by the Rays this off season from the San Diego Padres , or former Ranger pitcher Joaquin Benoit, who might push some pressure on the Rays Bullpen spots, or Joe Dillionaire” Dillon who might push for a bench spot on the team and be an adequate third catching option on the Major League roster because of his versatility.
 

 
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As the guy all assembled around Rays Manager Joe Maddon for his first inspirational speech for 2010, and the brief speeches and chats by Jeff “Ziggy” Zigler, who is the Rays Traveling Secretary, the team got into stretching and began long toss to get their arms stretched out for the first time in 2010 in front of a live audience. Rays starter Matt Garza and Rays Bullpen reliever Lance Cormier put on the show of the day easily topping 200+ feet in their long toss segment before the squad split into three groups and began to start drills on retrieving the ball in front of the mound and doing basic drills like covering first base on a bunt or even shot towards the hole at first base.
 
 

And on another part of the field, the Rays field players were beginning their daily workouts in the batting cages under the watchful eyes of spectators and autograph hounds. Gabe Kapler, Jason Bartlett and a bulkier-looking Rays prospect shortstop Tim Beckham all took their swipes in the cage today before taking time out to sign for some of the fans and expressed excitement in returning to Tropicana Field tomorrow for the 2010 Rays Fan Fest. I took this time to chat a bit with Rays Communication Manager Carmen Molina and St Petersburg Times Rays writer Marc Topkin about the season and to see if I could get a few tidbits.

 

 
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But I was lucky enough to be within a good earshot of the conversation by Rays owner Stuart Sternberg to the assembled media when he began to discuss the Rays payroll, keeping Carl Crawford and Carlos Pena, and the possible Rays stadium pot that is beginning to boil. He was his usual self showing total commitment to the St. Petersburg market place the team is currently in, but stressed the stadium will not be adequate up until the 2026 lease expiration date. Standing their in his own “Rays Sky Blue” sweatshirt he spoke for about 15 minutes answering volleys at him and providing in depth, complex answers that more than fulfilled the questions thrown at him on the fly. P. T. Barnum would have been proud.
 
 

And as the players began to split into their respective groups for their day ending run in the western-most field’s outfield, several players like J P Howell, Jeff Neiman and Rays prospect Jake McGee sprinted to the Rays clubhouse and shed their sweatshirts and came out again to do their running before taking time to chat and sign for fans before leaving for the day. I had a chance to talk to Howell, and his eyes lit up when I asked about his off season trip to Bora Bora for his honeymoon, or when I asked if we could do an interview sometimes during Spring Training about it.

 
 

And as I was asking that, Grant Balfour slapped me on the back asking if I was keeping my same seat. I quickly told him I was, and told him he better keep his same seat also ( on the Rays Bullpen bench) for 2010. He just smiled from ear-to-ear and told me he was going to do everything possible to stay put. Or when Randy Choate came up with his new facial chin hair and asked why I did not yell “Randy” when he saw me. And I began to tear up a bit. This is hard to explain, but over the past three years while I have been battling employment issues, these guys have been the solid foundation and the people I made sure to say something to before, or during every single Rays game.

 

 
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So today was special to me in a different way than most of the people assembled to welcome the Rays back from cold Winter snow-scapes, or even trips abroad with their new loved ones, this is my personal rite of Spring passage. Baseball is back, but better yet for me, Rays baseball is back. Even as I stood there talking with baseball buddy’s Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos or Bullpen Catcher Scott Cursi, I could feel that inner fire kicking up again and was eager for the upcoming season.
 
 

Maddon did not bring out any mathematical equations this season, but offered confidence and a yearning to remember those steps made in 2008 to again get back to that ” special place”. For the Rays to revisit their 2008 roots, it will take sweat, blood and commitment by each and ever member of their 2010 roster. In the next month and a half guys will come and go from the Rays clubhouse either to the minor league camps, or even towards other opportunities in baseball, but Maddon stressed that they had to regain that passion, had to redefine and re-energize to again do things “The Rays Way”, and make those steps to again claim a top spot not only in the American League, but in their ever present difficult Eastern division. But for today, it was just great to see my buddies again.

 
 

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