Rays Rotation Spot might be Down to Hammel and Niemann
The most anticipated fight this spring has finally shown some wear and tears, and a few true contenders are beginning to fall by the wayside. When the Tampa Bay Rays camp began back on February 15th, you knew that 5 members would be fighting and clawing to gain some type of leverage for that fifth slot in the Rays rotation. You knew the usual subjects of Jeff Niemann and Jason Hammel would be at the top of the pile trying to keep their respective major league uniforms on their backs in 2009. But you had the questions about two minor league prospects who wanted to make that leap into the majors this spring. With weeks still ahead of us here in Spring Training, this assessment could change at any moment due to injury or even a change of heart by the Rays staff. But these are my opinions, and they usually pan out pretty good in the long run. So let’s take a look at these great pitchers and see if we can honestly gauge their chances this spring at grabbing that fifth slot in the Rays rotation.
Wade Davis and Mitch Talbot both covet that spot in the rotation and their first real spot in the Rays plans for the future. Both have been discussed multiple times, with Talbot actually coming up on July 1, 2008 for 2 nights before again going back to Durham back on July 3rd when the Rays optioned him back and brought up Reid Brignac. Both have been listed in the top 10 of the Rays prospects lists, with Davis being the only one of the two to never put on a major league uniform during the 2008 season. But then a odd figure gets thrown into the mix that upsets the balance between the regulars and the minors leaguers battling for this spot.
Former Houston prospect Carlos Hernandez, who the Rays picked up during 2008 after the Astros let him go, is also being considered for the spot. Hernandez spent most of his time in 2008 down in the Rays minor league system still trying to shake off the cobwebs and adjust his mechanics after a two years absence from the mound because of injuries and surgery. The fifth spot would be an open tryout for these 5 players, with the added bonus of the top two maybe getting a slot in the Rays final 25-man roster. Even if one of these five did not get that coveted fifth rotation slot, they might be considered for the Rays Bullpen, which would keep them within the Rays eyes and they could still maybe get a shot if an injury occurs or someone starts off slow in 2009.
This spring, one pitcher in this group seems to have stepped it up a bit in the Rays eyes. There has always been the hint of promise and even major league dominance in his swagger, but before this spring he did not act like he belonged here long term. Wade Davis might be the guy who could have secured this spot if not for the fact that two of these guys do not have any minor league options left. He has improved his change-up and slider control to be more effective and dominant around the plate. But during the last series of the year when the Rays invite their minor leaguers to Tropicana field for their year end awards, Davis received the Montgomery Biscuits award as the Pitcher of the Year. He seemed genuinely upset he did not get a call-up to the Rays this past September, and that might be some added motivation in his stride this off season to improve on the mound.
So this spring he came on and dominated early on in his first two starts before having a faltering moment this weekend against the Boston Red Sox. As of today, his spring numbers are 3 starts for 8.1 innings while allowing 9 hits and striking out 7 hitters. His 6.48 ERA is not a great illustration of his early dominance as he was tagged for 6 runs in his last start. But maybe the fact that the media and maybe now even Davis himself believes he will be in the minor league camp sometimes this week. But make no mistake, this kid is a major league caliber pitcher right now, but his shot to impress, at this level might be over right now.He has the confidence and the ability to be on this staff right now, but the limited spots will affect the ultimate decision here. But you can be sure that his early efforts have awaken a few eyes in the Rays pitching staff. He will be with the team again at some point in 2009. He has developed enough to take that leap up to the majors, it just might not be in April this year.
Mitch Talbot is another of the Rays prospects that will be surely doing battle in the minor league than at the major league level to begin this year. Talbot also made huge strides in the last year, but his inability to make adjustments on the mound might be his downfall this spring. He had gained some more break on his curve and slider and they both are just below the norm for the majors, but his mental adjustments and conditioning might just be a bit off for now. He too will see action sometime in 2009 with the Rays, but it also will not be in April. Talbot just needs to gain a bit more knowledge and skill at changing his game plan on the fly, then he can take that last step to becoming more effective on the mound.
Carlos Hernandez was a huge question mark coming into the Spring Training workouts on Feb. 15th. The Rays liked what they saw out of his limited pitching down at Class-A Vero Beach last year, but did he still have the stuff to be a major league pitcher. Rays Manager Joe Maddon thought he might and the team penciled him
in as a long shot to make the fifth rotation spot. Hernandez has gotten a few good outing, he has pitched in 3 games this spring, starting 2 of them. He is the only one of the Rays starters who still sports a spotless 0.00 ERA, even after he has thrown 8 inning and given up 0 earned runs on 7 hits.
His strikeout and walk ratios are low, but he has also not shown that killer instinct that will be needed for that fifth slot. He did start the first game of the Spring for the Rays and has been impressive this Spring. But he still might have an outside chance of making the team’s 25-man roster, but in reality he might be another of the guys down in the minors itching for another shot at the major league level. I actually like the way he pitches, and can see him up here contributing for the team. Barring a trade, or even a injury before the team heads to Boston for the regular season, I do not see him making a move onto the major league roster. But, the team will take a long hard look at him, with his name being maybe one of the last ones to be plucked off the Spring roster.
So that leaves two pitchers who will be fighting for this spot in the rotation. Both of them have major league experience both starting and pitching from the Bullpen. That is two of the obvious reasons I think these two guys will break camp with one of them winning the fifth spot, and the other winning a spot in the Bullpen. Both have been dominant at times this year, with one setting the bar high so far this spring. Everyone knows Jason Hammel from his smile and his lanky walking style. But when he gets on the mound this spring, he has been all business for the Rays. Having made a late 2008 charge in the Bullpen both in confidence and in performance, he might be the guy to watch all year long no matter what spot he earns with the Rays.
This spring tho, Hammel has again shown he can rise up and take whatever the Rays want to dish out at him. He also dominated in the early stages of the spring and got rocked a bit in his last outing. But he has rebounded and has shown some amazing ability in 2009 of getting out and adjusting on the mound. His versatility both as a starter and a reliever serves him well. But his late season save in the close of a severely contested game in Fenway Park might have made Maddon a believer in him. Hammel has take the mound 3 times this spring, with 1 start. Some people might read into this as the Rays showing their confidence in him coming into the game after the first few innings as a reliever more than a starter.
But as we all know, during the spring sometimes starters can be inserted after the first few innings of a game. But a part of Hammel’s game that has improved this year is his ability to get strikeouts. His 9 innings pitched are tied with Niemann for the team lead this spring, but his 10 strikeouts show that he has developed his killer instinct and is setting batters down more this year. Some might say that his team high 10 hits might be an indication of some troubles, but half of those came in one bad outing this past week. His control is better this season, which can be best illustrated by his 1 walk this year. The fact that he is versed both as a starter and a reliever sits well with him getting his slot in the 25-man roster this spring. Barring any type of pitching disaster or injury, he should be the team’s long reliever, and first option as a replacement starter in 2009.
That leaves one pitcher still in the mix who has a shot at the fifth slot. Jeff Niemann has been successful before he even got to the Rays. His pitching ability in college has set him apart, but early injuries while he was coming up through the minors set back his development until 2008. Last year, due to the early spring injury to Matt Garza, Niemann showed his ability to start at this level and produced some impressive results. He won his major league debut on April 13, 2008 against the Baltimore Orioles and only surrendered one run, a homer to Nick Markakis in the game. Neiman was finally sent back down again on April 20, 2008. But with the Triple-A Durham Bulls he went 9-5, with a 3.59 ERA. But his 133 inning and 128 strikeouts showed that he was finally healthy and throwing strong.
They Rays called him up right after the Bulls were eliminated from the International League playoffs, and he joined the team again in St. Petersburg following their road trip on September 13, 2008. Even though his last stint only lasted 2 starts for the Rays, his job this time around for the team was out of the Bullpen. Niemann seemed to have made the adjustments needed to come out if the Bullpen and made his first relief appearance on September 18th, against the Minnesota Twins. He retied all four batters he faced, and it was only the fourth time in his career ( 3 times in Double-A ) that he had worked relief in a game. He again took the mound on September 23rd during the game of the double-header and went 2.1 inning and got the win in the come-from behind victory for the Rays.
But this Spring, he seemed to have a new focus and determination knowing that he no longer has the chance to go back to the minors. He was out of options and the Rays would have to sneak him through waivers for him to even report to the minors. The reality is that he would not go unclaimed and would no longer be in the Rays system if they tried such a move. So with his last chance firmly in front of him, he had emerged as my favorite for the fifth slot in the rotation. His spring has been impressive. His ball seems to have great control and his velocity has increased a little to give him more of a tool on the mound. He has appeared in 3 games this year also, and he has started two of them. But the true measure of his improvement might be the fact that he has thrown 9 innings and has given up a team low 5 hits. His control is spot on, evident by his 8 strikeouts and 2 walks this spring. But his ERA of 1.0 has opened a few eyes that he is ready to take the next step and be successful for the Rays.
But even with his previous outings, his 4 innings of work against the Twins on Monday might have sealed his spot in the 25-man roster. He worked 4 innings at the back of the game and gave up only 2 hits. The start might have been a double-edged sword as it proved he could work both ends of the game and could be used in either role with confidence this season. By shutting down the Twins offense, he showed he can handle the pressure and the pace of the game as either a starter or a reliever for the Rays. I truly think he is the guy who will get that fifth spot in te rotation, and I think he has shown a mountain of change over the past year and deserves a shot at proving to everyone he is a major league pitcher. And at 6 foot 9 inches, he is only 1 of 6 guys that tall in the MLB right now. Pitching downhill has never been so much fun to Niemann before today.