Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez Fight to be Tampa Bay Rays’ Fifth Starter

Jeff Niemann Tampa Bay Rays

Brad Penner- USA TODAY Sports

Last week, the Tampa Bay Rays sent Chris Archer town to Triple-A affiliate Durham, and while the prospect excelled in Spring Training, the competition to decide who will be the fifth starter in the Rays’ rotation is now down to two.

Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez (the artist formerly known as Fausto Carmona) have each looked solid in starts throughout the spring, with Niemann going 4.1 innings against the Baltimore Orioles last week, while Hernandez has registered seven K’s in his 10.2 spring innings, resulting in a 2.13 ERA.

With Joe Maddon still undecided on who will take the role, the performances in Port Charlotte will be important, but looking back over recent statistics, it is difficult to make a selection.

Roberto Hernandez Tampa Bay Rays

Steven Bisig – USA TODAY Sports

After last season’s controversy surrounding his false identity, Hernandez ended up with only 14.1 innings to his name in three starts, with a miserable 7.53 ERA. But that was on a slumping Cleveland Indians team, and is difficult to assess.

When the Rays signed him to a one-year deal before Christmas, they were hoping to see a guy on the mound who went 19-8 in 2007 and finished fourth in AL Cy Young voting. However, doubts over Hernandez’s consistency will always remain due to a career ERA approaching 5.00.

On the other hand, you have Niemann, who topped double-digit wins in three of his first four years as a Rays starter. However, a stint on the DL limited his time on the mound last season, and while the 2009 Rays Rookie of the Year came back knowing he had a battle on his hands for a place in the rotation, he had reason to be confident that it was his to lose.

With Archer out of the picture for the time being, Hernandez’s loss to the  Boston Red Sox over the weekend could prove costly in his pursuit of the fifth spot. But with Maddon yet to announce his intentions, nor even elude to a pending decision, there is still time for the Dominican pitcher to lay claim to it — or perhaps more importantly, for Niemann to lose it.

With the rest of the rotation locked up and looking in good shape as the Rays head into what promises to be an exciting season, Tampa Bay fans will undoubtedly look forward to the result of the competition, while knowing the whole time that they have an exciting young prospect ready and raring to go if need be.

Richard Churchill is a Tampa Bay Rays writer for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter, “Like” him on Facebook, and add him to your Google+ network.

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