PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- The return of J.P. Howell could be one of the more significant factors for determining if the Rays can repeat as American League East champions.
Howell reported to Spring Training last season with weakness in his left shoulder and began a rehab program with the goal of returning in late May. Accordingly, he was placed on the 15-day disabled list out of Spring Training on March 26.
Then, on May 17, he was throwing in a simulated game at Tropicana Field when he was forced to stop due to pain in his shoulder. Two days later, Dr. James Andrews performed surgery in Birmingham, Ala., to repair a torn labrum and Howell was out for the season.
2010 Spring Training - Major League Baseball
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Talk about big shoes for a team to fill. The diminutive Howell's were the size of the Jolly Green Giant.
Combining the 2008 and '09 seasons, he led all Major League relievers with 13 wins, ranked third with 171 strikeouts and fifth in innings pitched (156) and batting average against (.195). Since moving to the bullpen in '08, he is 13-6 with a 2.48 ERA.
So, when will Howell return this season? Listen to the lovable left-hander and one immediately believes he'll be back sooner than expected.
"I think I'll beat May 19, for sure," said Howell, who has been aiming to return prior to the one-year anniversary of his surgery. "I think I'll be back by May 1."
Uh, maybe not so fast, according to Rays manager Joe Maddon, who echoed the voice of caution.
"I don't think so," said Maddon, when asked if Howell will be back by May 1. "We haven't talked about that.
"I love the players being aggressive and all that stuff, but when you go through this long process of getting well, then to mess it up at the finish line would be crazy. ... I love the fact J.P. wants to get back sooner, that's good for him and us. But I really want to just listen to what the [team medical and training staffs] have to say."
Even if the return date might be later than what Howell expects, he is extremely optimistic based on how his Spring Training has gone. Saturday morning he threw a 35-pitch bullpen session and used a variety of pitches that included his fastball, curveball, and changeup.
"So far, so good; it's been all good, man," Howell said. "I feel pretty close to ready for some action in some games. But I'll probably have to do some live BP sessions in a couple of weeks. So my first game will probably be the first Minor League season game."
Howell looked sharp during Saturday's bullpen session. He noted that he has advanced to the point where he's able to throw without thinking about it, which is a big mental hurdle to clear.
"I'm 100 percent in terms of that," Howell said. "Every now and then I'll get stiff the next day. And that's really the only thing that annoys me. I want to be able to recover a little quicker. But last year I couldn't recover at all."
While Howell would like to be back by May 1, he's going to be totally honest with the team trainers about what he's feeling.
"I've waited so long that if I rushed it and hurt myself, I could never forgive myself after how much work and the hours I've put into it," Howell said. "I'll wait until June 19 if it's not right. I'm not here to try and break a record and get back and have a 12.00 ERA. I want to have a 1.50 ERA, and I want to win. So that's what I'm waiting for."
A nice aspect of Howell's rehab was the 30 pounds he added during his hiatus, which has given him a little more pop on his fastball.
"I definitely have more velocity, and it definitely hasn't affected movement," Howell said. "Understanding maybe how hard I'm throwing, I don't know, I don't have a radar gun. Even if it's 88, that's some gas to me -- even if it's 88, I've got to learn how to use it, throw inside a little more."
He smiled at the thought.
Having Howell back on the mound -- and in the clubhouse -- will be a welcome addition to the Rays, no matter the date.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.