It's no secret that if the Tampa Bay Rays have a weak link, it's their bullpen.
After some early struggles, the relief pitching has held up well while waiting for bullpen ace J.P. Howell to return from an injury.
Unfortunately, they may end up having to wait until 2011.
Howell, it's reported by the St. Petersburg Times, is going to see Dr. James Andrews, never a good sign for a pitcher. What was previously believed to be a slight shoulder injury is now looking like season-ending surgery.
Howell, expected to return in early June, suffered a setback during his rehab program that appears to be worse than anyone thought.
Howell was instrumental in the Rays' 2008 playoff run and the 2009 season. In 2008 he developed into the go-to guy that could always be counted on to get the team out of a mid-to-late inning jam.
He pitched more innings out of the bullpen in the past two seasons than any other lefty reliever in baseball, and they were quality innings, as he posted a 2.22 ERA in '08 and a 2.84 ERA in '09. Howell also struck out 171 batters in 156 innings during that span.
Picking up the slack will be Dan Wheeler and Grant Balfour, who have ERAs of 2.13 and 2.20 respectively. The Rays will need continued production out of them to get the ball to closer Rafael Soriano, who's a perfect 10-for-10 in save opportunities with a 1.59 ERA.
The Rays are always hoping that reliever Joaquin Benoit is for real and back to his pre-injury self. The righty has thrown 6.2 scoreless innings for the Rays, striking out nine.
Still, this is the biggest bit of adversity the Rays have faced this season, and it comes in their weakest area. The overall value of Howell to this franchise was thought to be irreplaceable before the season. Time will tell if the rest of the bullpen can remain at this high level.