Right-hander Jeff Niemann was projected to be the fifth member of the rotation this year, but the solid play of right-hander Roberto Hernandez this spring has given the Rays plenty to think about.
“Figuring out how to set up our rotation is probably the biggest decision we have,” executive vice president Andrew Friedman told TampaBay.com. “It’s a really good problem to have with two really capable, good, quality major-league starters. We’ll continue to debate it and talk through what puts us in the best position to win games.”
Niemann started eight games for Tampa Bay in 2012 in which he went 2-3 with a 3.08 earned run average and 34 strikeouts. He has been even more productive this spring as he is making a legitimate case for the starting job. In five games (three starts), the 30-year-old has posted a 1-1 record with a 2.13 ERA and nine strikeouts in 12 2/3 innings.
Hernandez was signed by the Rays to a one-year contract this past offseason after spending the last seven years with the Cleveland Indians. In three games in 2012, he went 0-3 with a whopping 7.53 ERA and two strikeouts in 14 1/3 innings. Hernandez was only able to start three games because of his involvement in an identity fraud case in the Dominican Republic.
The alleged 32-year-old is 0-1 with a 3.60 ERA and 12 strikeouts in five games (four starts) this spring.
Niemann has to be considered the favorite for the fifth rotation spot because of his decent performance last season, and what he has been able to accomplish this year. However, a history of injuries could force Tampa Bay’s hand to go with Hernandez instead. Niemann broke his leg last May after getting nailed by a line drive. He eventually missed the rest of the season with shoulder inflammation that could most certainly act up again this year.
The fact that Niemann is not known for pitching deep into games also has to be a concern for the Rays. Hernandez has not put up the best numbers in recent years, but at least he is able to pitch between 180 and 210 innings in a season.
Regardless of that statistic, I would still go with Niemann as the fifth starter. He has historically been the better pitcher and is able to keep opponent batting averages down, which is more than Hernandez can say.