Going into Spring Training ahead of the 2013 season, the Tampa Bay Rays were prepared to give Jeff Niemann, who had missed all but 38 innings in 2012 due to a bad break (literally) and shoulder issues, the inside track on the competition for the fifth spot in the rotation.
That track might not count for much, though, if breakthrough prospect Chris Archer can continue his run in spring.
The 24-year old righty, who was acquired as part of the of the deal that sent Matt Garza to the Chicago Cubs in 2011, finally made his debut in the big leagues towards the end of last season when Niemann was shut down.
He showed flashes of brilliance over six starts, including a seven-inning, 11-strikeout performance against the Texas Rangers in September that really demonstrated what kind of upside he could have for the team.
If Archer impressed the team then, what he’s doing these days is a full-on revelation.
Out of all of the Tampa Bay pitchers who are either projected to be in the starting rotation, or are gunning for a spot, Archer has been the only one that hasn’t allowed a run. In seven innings over three outings, the hard-throwing prospect has allowed just one — yes, one — hit, while tallying three walks and five strikeouts.
In other words, he’s on a tear.
His performance will likely push Roberto Hernandez, aka the man formerly known as Fausto Carmona, out of the starting rotation picture. Hernandez has allowed just a pair of runs on two hits and four walks over six innings, but that’s not close to the type of form that Archer is showing.
As for Niemann? Well, He’s still hanging on for now.
The righty is coming off a promising one-run performance on Saturday afternoon over 3.2 innings, allowing four hits while striking out three. That’s just his second earned run this spring, and he’s allowed seven hits over 8.1 innings with six strikeouts.
So while Archer has been nearly perfect, Niemann is not about to roll over anytime soon.
The battle for the No. 5 spot appears one that will go on for the rest of the spring, and Tampa Bay now find themselves dealing with a familiar problem — having more quality pitchers than they have roster spots for.