Rays poised to call for reinforcements

Sonnanstine, Howell could come up from Triple A.

Published June 1, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - With struggling starters in the big leagues and promising prospects at Triple A, Devil Rays officials are expected to make changes in their rotation, perhaps as soon as today.

Andy Sonnanstine and J.P. Howell look to be the top choices to be called up, with Jae Seo and Casey Fossum the likely candidates for demotion or departure.

The Rays think that, unlike past seasons, they have considerable depth, with all five Durham starters worthy of eventual promotion. The others are Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot.

"All those guys have the ability to pitch in the big leagues and pitch here for many years," said catcher Shawn Riggans, recently promoted from Triple A. "Out of that group right now I'd say Sonnanstine is probably the most polished guy there just due to the fact that he throws so many strikes. I'd say Hammel and J.P. Howell are right behind him. Overall, I feel like all those guys can help out here."

Although Seo and Fossum have been struggling combined 6-9 record, 8.01 ERA, the Rays were more concerned with making sure they didn't rush the prospects who could replace them, avoiding mistakes such as the way Dewon Brazelton was handled.

"What we've said all along with the five starters we have in Durham is that the development process takes priority," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "As these guys are working on things, and each one is working on specific things, the most important thing is that they accomplish those goals and have the foundation to come up here and have success."

Sonnanstine, who threw 82 pitches over six innings in a loss for Triple-A Durham on Thursday (allowing a season-high 10 hits), is in line to pitch Tuesday in Toronto when the Rays next need a fifth starter. (He would have to be added to the 40-man roster, though Seo could be dropped.) Howell pitched Tuesday and would be lined up to take Fossum's turn Sunday.

Manager Joe Maddon said the discussion would involve the input of the minor-league coaches, who know the prospects better. "What it comes down to in our conversations is that some guys are perceived to be more ready than others, and that's part of the evaluation process."

A look at the Durham five, in the order they may be called up:

Andy Sonnanstine, RHP

Age: 24

Ht./Wt.: 6-3; 185

Scouting report: Uses three arm angles (regular, three-quarters and low three-quarters) and has deception in delivery. ... Throws fastball (87-89 mph), slider, sinker, changeup. ... Has remarkable control. ... Learning to pitch more inside, which will make down-and-away specialty even more effective. ... Not easily intimidated.

Numbers: 6-4, 2.66 ERA in 11 starts. ... Allowed 60 hits in 71 innings. ... Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 66-13. ... WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) of 1.03.

Career: 13th-round pick in 2004. ... Was Rays pitcher of the year in 2006 after going 15-8, 2.67 at Double-A Montgomery, setting organization record for wins. ... Has been Rays pitcher of the year at his level in each of first three pro seasons.

Why he should be promoted: Has won at every level (40-18 minor-league record) and met every challenge. Control should transfer to big-league level. Wide repertoire a plus.

Why he shouldn't be promoted: Without overwhelming "stuff, " he has to be precise and could need more than 10 starts above Double A. Confidence could take a major blow if he is hit hard early.

J.P. Howell, LHP

Age: 24

Ht./Wt.: 6 feet; 180

Scouting report: Velocity reaches 85 to 88 mph, but strength is guile and guts. ... Added a cut fastball to repertoire that includes fastball, changeup, sinker and curve. ... Regained form after slow start following late spring demotion. ... Fearless on mound, will throw any pitch in any count.

Numbers: 3-5, 3.96 in 11 starts. ... Allowed 62 hits in 632/3 innings. ... Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 64-18. ... WHIP of 1.26. ... Has allowed Durham-high eight homers.

Career: 31st overall pick of 2004 draft by Royals, acquired in June 2006 trade for Joey Gathright. ... Is 4-8, 5.79 in 23 big-league starts with Royals and Rays (including seven-inning shutout of Yankees on Sept. 23). Was rushed from A ball to majors by Royals in 2005.

Why he should be promoted: Has the experience, has performed well with Durham, dominating in stretches and, Riggans said, has really learned "how to pitch."

Why he shouldn't be promoted: He had two stints last season to show what he can do and wasn't impressive. ... Lack of better fastball puts premium on control and can lead to quick trouble.

Jason Hammel, RHP

Age: 24

Ht./Wt.: 6-6; 220

Scouting report: Has 90-95 mph fastball, strong overhand curve and effective changeup. ... Added slider but is still getting comfortable throwing it in key situations. ... The key is keeping the ball down - when it's up, it's trouble. ... Still working on throwing more inside.

Numbers: 3-5, 2.85 in 11 starts, including two complete games and five no-hit innings in his first start. ... Allowed 47 hits (and only two homers) in 661/3 innings. ... Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 61-22. ... WHIP of 1.04.

Career: 10th-round pick in 2002. ... Is 0-6, 7.77 in nine starts during two stints with Rays last season. ... Moved slowly through system, needing four seasons to reach Double A. ... Pitched 81/3 innings of combined Triple-A no-hitter July 16.

Why he should be promoted: With Sonnanstine, has been most consistent of Triple-A starters. ... Had enough 2006 time in majors that he shouldn't be nervous about stepping into rotation. ... Has learned value of keeping ball down and pitching inside.

Why he shouldn't be promoted: Rays saw last year what he can do. ... Inability to keep the ball down can lead to huge problems. He allowed seven homers in nine starts in '06.

Jeff Niemann, RHP

Age: 24

Ht./Wt.: 6-9; 280

Scouting report: Pure power pitcher, with fastball that hits 95-96 mph. ... Curveball can be strong No. 2 pitch, but he likes to throw the slider a lot. ... Has sinker and changeup, and is experimenting with a splitter. ... Loves to pound the fastball inside, then mix in a curve or changeup. ... Has a warrior mentality.

Numbers: 4-3, 3.84 in 11 starts. ... Has allowed 59 hits (including seven homers) in 582/3 innings. ... Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 62-22. ... WHIP of 1.38

Career: Fourth overall pick of 2004 draft out of Rice. ... Battled injuries much of his pro career, sidelined until June 19.

Why he should be promoted: Has the highest ceiling of the Durham starters with the potential to be a staff ace. ... Has been healthy and getting better.

Why he shouldn't be promoted: Because of injuries, he has only pitched 1662/3 minor-league innings over three seasons, so more time in minors can't hurt. Plus, Rays don't want to risk retarding his progress, because once he gets to majors, they expect him to stay a long time.

Mitch Talbot, RHP

Age: 23

Ht./Wt.: 6-2; 200

Scouting report: Wide repertoire includes low-to-mid 90s fastball, sinker, cutter, slider, curve and changeup (which could be his best pitch). ... Tends to outthink himself in certain situations instead of trusting his stuff. ... Could have the best "pure stuff" of the five. ... Has showed mental toughness in coming back strong after rough stretch in which he allowed 28 runs in 19 innings.

Numbers: 4-5, 6.00 in 10 starts. ... Allowed 52 hits in 48 innings. ... Strikeout-to-walk ratio of 36-22. ... WHIP of 1.54.

Career: Second-round pick in 2002 by Astros, acquired in July 2006 trade (with Ben Zobrist) for Aubrey Huff. ... Last year was first time above Class A, went 10-7 between Corpus Christi and Montgomery. ... Pitched two complete-game shutouts during Biscuits' postseason run.

Why he should be promoted: Has the stuff to be successful against big-league hitters.

Why he shouldn't be promoted: Needs time to learn how to pitch in certain situations. Like Niemann, when he gets to majors, Rays want him to be in position to succeed and stay for a long time.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801.