On Sunday, Jay Buente was the starting pitcher who ended up on the losing end of James Shields’ masterpiece against the Marlins. Now, Buente will have his check issued by the same organization as Shields. Buente, 27, made his starting debut this past weekend against the Rays. Following his poor outing (3IP, 4 R, 3 ER, 3 BB, 1K, 18 BF) he was designated for assignment by Florida and claimed by the same Tampa Bay team that roughed him up three days earlier.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned Buente as a possible alternative to Javier Vazquez in the Marlins’ rotation. Instead of replacing Vazquez, Buente followed him in the spot that opened up as a result Josh Johnson’s injury. Although the Marlins said he would take another turn through the rotation, he was quickly replaced on the roster by reliever Steve Cishek. With Johnson on track to return on June 1, Buente’s time appeared limited in any event.
Despite the poor outing in his first major-league start, Buente has a solid track record in the minor leagues. He has spent most of the past three seasons at Triple-A, compiling an impressive 138 strikeouts in 133 innings. Buente was called up to the Marlins as a starter, but has spent most of his career in the bullpen. In fact, just nine of his 199 minor-league appearances came from starts.
Strikeouts have not been a problem for Buente throughout his professional career. On the other hand, he has been liberal with handing out free passes (3.6 BB/9 in 337 innings). In 2011, it appears as if he has harnessed some of that wildness. While pitching for Triple-A New Orleans he walked 10 batters in 41.2 innings (2.16 BB/9).
Buente’s peripherals aside, he’s far from a prospect. In addition to being in his late-20s, the former 16th round pick doesn’t have elite stuff. What he does have is a low-90s fastball that is complemented by a curveball and a pretty nifty split-finger. The latter pitch has helped give him an above-average ground-ball rate and has kept the ball in the yard. In addition to improving his walk rate, he has allowed just one home run to the 174 batters he faced (156 minors, 18 majors) so far this season.
While watching the game Sunday, I noticed Buente pitched exclusively from the stretch. Considering his track record as a reliever, it makes sense he would be more comfortable pitching that way. With the tremendous amount of talent in the Tampa Bay system, his long-term role appears to be that of a middle reliever. In the short-term, though, he might be asked to pitch as a starter.
The Rays will be without starter Jeff Niemann until mid-June, at the earliest. Niemann’s fill-in, Andy Sonnanstine, has been unable to recapture the results (or the process) that made him a successful starter in 2008. The Rays might have an eye on Buente as a spot starter for Niemann or Sonnanstine. Or they could have him fill a rotation slot at the minor-league level should the team call up Alex Cobb or Alex Torres to take those remaining turns in the rotation.
One of the underlying themes of Tampa Bay’s offseason was acquiring low-cost, controllable bullpen arms. The acquisition of Buente is just a continuation of that philosophy. He might never amount to anything more than an organizational soldier, but with a nasty splitter in his arsenal, he could become a cheap ground-ball specialist who comes at the price of the league-minimum salary and a waiver fee.