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Rays feel Howell well worth risk

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 04:19 PM
PORT CHARLOTTE -

The contract was signed before the Royals sent J.P. Howell for an MRI on his left shoulder, before team doctors saw something wrong with Howell's labrum.

That's when things became messy.

The Royals wanted to void the contract, which called for a $1 million signing bonus.

Howell fired his agent for agreeing to a deal without his consent and hired another one. His new agent, Brian Peters, sent Howell to three doctors and each thought Howell's shoulder was fine.

"I was lucky, man," Howell said. "If I had surgery, then who knows what would have happened? I don't know if I would have been ready for all the rehab."

Instead, Howell reached the big leagues the following season in 2005, was traded to the Rays the year after that, became a failed starter and then a key figure of the bullpen in 2008 and 2009. He did this while pitching with pain he thought was normal for someone who makes a living moving his arm in an unnatural manner day after day.

"I didn't know anything about arms," Howell said. "I thought I just had a little pinch. It caused me to throw the ball slower, that's all I noticed. If I humped up it hurt. But if I just pitched calmly, it really didn't bother me too much."

Meanwhile, his labrum dissolved to the point where it was torn, requiring surgery in May of 2010 that was so invasive his career was in jeopardy.

"The odds weren't great of him coming back," Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said.

Howell's up-and-down season in 2011 earned him a one-year, $1.35 million contract for 2012 that raised the ire of many Rays fans, who watched him falter in several late-season games. Included was Game 3 of the American League Division Series, when he allowed a two-run single to Josh Hamilton. Howell was viewed as a bad investment.

But to the Rays, Howell is worth the risk, because the wispy, 190-pound lefty is also one of the tougher guys on the team.

"J.P. is one of those kinds of guys you bet on because of who he is," Friedman said.

The Rays and Howell knew 2011 was going to be rocky for two reasons: He was coming off major shoulder surgery and, because he rehabbed throughout the 2010-2011 offseason, never had a chance to rest since the winter of 2010.

There were nights when everything worked in concert, his shoulder and his arm, and he could locate his pitches. There were nights when everything was out of whack. There were also nights when he was great one pitch, terrible the next.

That's how it was during the seventh inning of Game 3 when Howell threw two curveballs to Hamilton. The first one was perfect.

"I throw two more and he's done," Howell said. "If I throw the same pitch, he has zero chance of hitting them, because it looks exactly like a fastball and he's not going to let one go. It goes straight and it drops, and if I can repeat that, it's over."

Howell couldn't repeat the pitch and his season was over.

Two days later, Howell cleaned out his locker with the rest of his teammates and headed to Los Angeles for the offseason, wondering what his future held while Friedman and his staff got busy assembling the 2012 Rays. They consulted with the Rays trainers, who unanimously agreed Howell was well worth the risk.

"I've never seen anyone dedicate themselves to the rehab process like J.P. did," Friedman said. "He had a very significant surgery that was difficult to come back from. But watching the way he went about it and how similar it was to the way he competed on the mound gave us great comfort that he would come back from it."

Howell is scheduled to throw one inning this afternoon against the Twins at the Charlotte Sports Park. He's pitched well this camp. He's able to repeat his delivery and hit his spots, encouraging signs to himself and the Rays.

"I got lucky, because pitching with a tear I learned heart, because that's what I had to have to win," Howell said. "I didn't have talent, so I had to out-work you, out-focus you. That was really the only keys I could use and it worked. I don't have all this stuff going on now, I can just play. I'm a normal guy, now."

A healthy J.P. Howell can be viewed as adding another arm to what figures to be another solid bullpen.

"We have depth in the bullpen. This isn't all on J.P.'s shoulders," Friedman said. "There's a lot of upside there, but even if the upside doesn't come through, we feel he's going to help us win games."


rmooney@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7227

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