Rays close to adding J.P. Howell to league’s best bullpen

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Despite losing closer Rafael Soriano and setup men Joaquin Benoit, Grant Balfour, and Dan Wheeler to free agency the Rays’ bullpen leads the league with a 2.82 ERA and they’re close to adding left-hander J.P. Howell to the relief mix.

After struggling as a starter Howell moved to the bullpen full time in 2008 and went 13-6 with 20 saves, 171 strikeouts, and a 2.48 ERA in 156 innings over the next two seasons, but he missed all of last season following shoulder surgery.

Howell threw a scoreless inning at Triple-A over the weekend and manager Joe Maddon told Rick Stroud of the St. Petersburg Times that he’s on schedule to rejoin the Rays around May 15.

Before that happens he’ll need to show that he can work back-to-back games and Howell’s fastball clocked in at just 84-86 miles per hour during the rehab appearance, but even when he was dominating in 2008 and 2009 his average fastball was just 86 mph.

Blue Jays shut down Steve Pearce for the rest of 2017

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The Blue Jays have shut down left fielder Steve Pearce for the remainder of the season following a lingering case of lower back stiffness. Pearce has not appeared in a game since September 8, when he was forced to exit in the first inning after experiencing back pain during his at-bat. Per Ben Nicholson-Smith of Sportsnet.ca, he’s scheduled to return to Florida next week, where he’ll receive epidural injections to address the pain.

Pearce, 34, impressed in his first season with Toronto. He battled through a calf injury during the first half of the season and finished the year with a modest .252/.319/.438 batting line, 13 home runs and a .757 OPS through 348 PA. By September, the Blue Jays started testing the waters with outfield prospect Teoscar Hernandez, who shouldered the bulk of the starts in left field after Pearce was sidelined with back issues.

With the Blue Jays all but eliminated from playoff contention, however, there’s no rush to get Pearce back to the outfield. He should be in fine shape to compete for another starting role in spring, and could face stiff competition from Hernandez if the rookie continues building on his .278 average and three home runs this month. The veteran outfielder is slated to receive the remaining $6.25 million on his contract in 2018 and will be eligible for free agency in 2019.

Brewers’ Julio Mendez remains hospitalized after hit by pitch

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Brewers’ minor league infielder Julio Mendez remains in “critical but stable condition,” club GM David Stearns announced Friday. Back in August, Mendez suffered a cardiac event after he was inadvertently struck by a ball from the Angels’ Austin Krzeminksi during a game between the rookie-level affiliates. The 20-year-old was removed to a Phoenix-area hospital for treatment following the incident and has recently been transferred to a hospital in his native Venezuela.

Mendez was in his fourth season with the Brewers’ organization. He spent the majority of his 2017 run with the rookie-level AZL Brewers, slashing .255/.294/.355 with 10 extra-base hits, 16 RBI and four stolen bases over 119 plate appearances. He currently holds a career .241/.324/.309 batting line, 33 extra bases and a .633 OPS through 668 PA.

Baseball is still on the back burner, however, as Mendez appears to have made little progress nearly a month following the hit by pitch. Thoughts go out to his family during this difficult time.