Rays Land Howell In Trading Gathright

The Devil Rays have a surplus of outfielders, even if one omits troubled Triple-A talents Elijah Dukes and Delmon Young from the equation. One of the pieces of that puzzle, speedster Joey Gathright, had his name circulated for months in trade rumors, and the deal finally happened Tuesday, when the Rays sent Gathright and Triple-A infielder Fernando Cortez to the Royals for Triple-A lefthander J.P. Howell.

Howell, 23, is no longer a prospect in the true sense of that word because the Royals rushed him to the majors in 2005 and he no longer qualifies as a rookie. He wasn’t ready for the big leagues in 2005, going 3-5, 6.19 in 73 innings over 15 starts. His biggest problems were allowing 39 walks (while striking out 54) and nine home runs as he gave big league hitters too much respect and fell behind in counts repeatedly.

This year, Howell was sent back to Triple-A Omaha, but he missed more than a month with a stiff shoulder. He returned to the O-Royals rotation on June 5, and has been effective in his three starts since coming back, going 0-0, 2.00, but he’s been limited to nine innings as he works back from the injury. For the season, he was 3-2, 4.75 with 14 walks and 33 strikeouts in 36 innings.

Howell’s been on the prospect radar for a while though, having been a second-round pick of the Braves in 2001 out of a Sacramento area high school. After one season at Southern California, Howell helped lead Texas to the College World Series in 2003 and 2004 and was the Royals’ supplemental first-round pick in 2004. At his best, he has above-average command of a high-80s fastball, works with both a two-seamer and four-seamer, and has an above-average curveball. His changeup also has been a plus pitch at times, but he’s not overpowering and profiles as a middle-of-the-rotation starter at best.

Gathright, 24, is perhaps the fastest player in the major leagues, a true burner and 80 runner on the 20-80 scale. He was an unheralded 32nd-round pick out of a Louisiana high school in 2001 and reached the major leagues in just his third full season of pro ball. However, hitting is the only other tool where he profile as average, however, as he has no usable power and a poor throwing arm to go along with an indifferent, inconsistent approach to defense. Pitchers at upper levels have found they can pound Gathright inside with fastballs because he can’t drive the ball, as evidenced by his career .291 slugging percentage in 409 big league at-bats. He was hitting just .201/.305/.240 this season in 154 at-bats (55 games) with the Rays and had been sent down to Triple-A Durham after Rocco Baldelli’s successful return from knee surgery.

Cortez, 24, is a utility infielder who got a brief big league look in 2005, going 1-for-13 for Tampa Bay. He has struggled in 2006 with Durham, shifting between second and third base and batting just .222/.265/.271 in 203 at-bats. He was backing up former big leaguers Luis Rivas and Sean Burroughs, limiting his playing time of late. Cortez has a track record for hitting for a solid average prior to Triple-A, including a .333 start in 2005 at Double-A Montgomery, thanks to good hands that work well at the plate and in the field. He lacks the strength to drive the ball consistently enough to be an above-average hitter, and his profile fits better in a reserve role. Cortez offers average speed with improved baserunning instincts, as he’s 33-for-40 on stolen-base attempts the last two seasons.