Rays have some Major Pitching Decisons looming
Paul J Berewill / AP
I do not envy Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman or Rays Manager Joe Maddon’s job this weekend. They will have to brainstorm and continue to formulate a plan to set two people either on a plane to the minor leagues, or find another alternative for one before the team gets on the plane to head to Toronto at the beginning of the week. One player ( Winston Abreu) probably already knows his days are numbered and is just going to enjoy what time he has left before he is heading back to Triple-A this season.
But the second player that will needed to be plucked from the rotation and either sent down to the minors, traded, or maybe even relegated to the Bullpen might be the toughest decision for the Rays this season. And I do not envy those two men at all for the deepest cut this year for the team. We all know that Rays starter Scott Kazmir is rumored to be starting one of the games this weekend, and with that becoming a reality, it means one of the two other starters this weekend either Jeff Neimann or David Price might be sitting on the hot seat.
But then again, did Andy Sonnanstine do enough to even secure his job last night. We all know he got roughed up in the first inning then completely solidified and became the starter we needed last night. Sonnanstine has the mental ability to start in the league without question. The only problem is that now we have a three headed monster to contend with here, and which head is the one to be chopped off. All three have merits to be here another day in the rotation, but someone has to give way again by Monday when the Rays have anticipated that Rays reliever Chad Bradford would be ready for duty.
That throws another gallon of gasoline in the fire because with his promotion back onto the Rays roster, one of the big three will have to give way. I want to play shadow General Manager here for a moment and try and decide, convince or maybe even throw some personal opinion into the barrel with the rest of Maddon and Friedman’s thoughts. We all know that Bradford is further along in his rehab that initially anticipated and could even be restored to the roster by the weekend.
But my logical, or maybe biased view might be to use the obvious choice of sending down Abreu today or tomorrow to make that first roster space ready for Kazmir if he indeed is given a start this weekend in place of Price or Niemann. And with that happening, just move the current rotation down 1 to keep a rightie( Shields), leftie( Kazmir), rightie (Garza), leftie (Price), rightie (Niemann) match-up. Okay you are quickly noticing my second part of the rotation here with the absence of a name.
I am over a barrel here because I love the spunk of Sonnanstine and actually think he is turning the corner. His mental make-up is the thing I wish both Niemann and Price have right now. That is what makes this more of a toss-up than a sure thing. I can make excuses for either Sonnanstine or Price going down, but in reality, if we send down Price right now we might send the wrong message to him too. As I have mentioned before, in 2003 when Kazmir first made his Rays debut, he went 2-3 and showed impressive results in strikeouts and movement on his pitches, but you knew 2004 was going to be his year.
Price has been basically anointed by the media to be a darling since his playoff heroics of 2008, but that doesn’t give you the leg up to assume or take a roster spot in the major leagues. He did need that additional seasoning in the minors, and maybe it might not have been the right time to bring him up, but it is history now and if you send him back it might put him behind in his development. For some reason now I am of the mindset that for him to go back to Durham would revert his development a bit.
Kazmir and James Shields had to learn to adjust at this level and turned out fine for the Rays. Matt Garza took huge steps in 2008 to prove he was a top tier pitcher in the league. That Texas tussle might have actually been the best moment of his career because it got him to see a problem outside of just pitching that was taking his mind off the business on the mound. Heck, even if Price got lite up a bit on Tuesday night in that first inning the fact he threw 30 strikes on 40 pitches in itself is pretty amazing.
So here is the rub. You got three guys who deserve the spots, but only two slots to fill. How do you decide who is the odd man out?
1st contender…………….Jeff Niemann
You got a former First Round draft pick that you have invested both time and money into who is finally coming into his own on the mound after only 16 career starts. He is currently tied with James Shields for the team lead in wins with 6, and is second among American League rookie pitcher this season in wins.
Not only that, he has matured and developed quickly since his first start of the season where he got shell shocked by the Baltimore Orioles and his six victories puts him 4 behind Rolando Arrojo’s current Rays rookie record. The team has won 8 of his last 9 starts and are 10-4 overall when he has taken the mound in 2009. This statistic is the best among the five starters on the Rays staff this season.
He is getting 8.17 runs per 9 innings, the second best support in the AL after Boston’s Tim Wakefield. The Rays have scored 40 runs in his last 4 starts and have scored 8 runs or more in 10 of his 14 starts. He has not allowed a home run in 26.1 innings or since May 23rd at Florida (Uggla). Niemann also has the only complete game shutout by a rookie pitcher this season in the majors. He threw only 100 pitches in that shut out, with between 9-14 pitches each inning of that contest.
The one really bad side to maybe even considering taking Niemann out of the rotation might be the effect it would have on his starting ability in the rest of the season. Being a major league reliever is a different mindset since you have to be ready every day to pitch. That is a totally different mental preparation for a game than studying two days in advance of your next start to get totally invested in the opposition’s hitting patterns. Relievers tend to learn on the fly at times, which might stunt his growth as a starter.
2nd Contender……………….Andy Sonnanstine.
I have to say I re
ally like the way he handled that adversity last night, but for some reason it did feel like more of the same from him this season. He has gotten in deep dodo before in 2009 and fought log and hard to resurface with confidence and a renewed vigor to pitch, and I respect that in him. But the reality is that even though he is now tied with Neimann and Shields with six wins,he has had to endure more stress and rocky starts than the other two starters.
But he is a sure thing at home this season, I will give him that. In 2009 he is 5-0 in six home starts this season. Compare that to his road record and he is night and day this season. On the road he is 1-7 with a 8.22 ERA. But on top of some of those great home numbers is a few statistics that might frighten the daylights out of you. He had allowed a home run in 8 straight starts before he blanked the Philadelphia Phillies last night. During that span he has allowed 14 dingers. But that is not the only warning signal to boast a red flag for Sonnanstine.
His 6.61 ERA is the highest among major league qualifying starting pitchers this season. He currently leads the American League in runs allowed with 60 runs, and .307 Opponents Batting Average is second in the AL. But a big plus on his side to maybe stay until at least Monday is the fact he gives Maddon another left-handed bat on the bench for the Inter League series. He has been impressive with his hitting in 2009, and has proven to be a bona fide hitter for the Rays.
But even if the plus and minus side match up, he is also eligible to be sent down to the minors without having to be placed on waivers at all. He still has two minor league options that the Rays can use with him. I am not pre-determining anything here, but that fact along with the red flags on homers and Opponents Batting Average might be a determining factor in the future decision.
3rd Contender……………David Price.
Here is where it gets really interesting. If you send down the Rookie do you send the right message to him that his time is coming and that this is just a postponement of his major league education? As I have stated before, I think he was not ready to come up right after Kazmir went on the disabled list. But he has gotten the same kind of training Kazmir got in 2003 when he went 2-3 and got thrown into the Rays rotation. Maybe this experience taught him something and if he did go back down a fire would be burning in his belly to get back up here as soon as possible.
But the reality is that the guy is here now and he could learn just as well up here as in Durham now. And the added fact of a second leftie in your starting rotation is nothing to sneeze at in the major leagues. But he is also a work in progress up here right now getting hit around at times, but always acting like a rubber band and pulling himself back into shape to adjust and get his game back into order. And that has not gone unnoticed in the stands either.
Let’s look at his stats before the Tuesdays game to get a better look at what he has done so far in the majors. Before that game he had made a total of 7 career starts for the Rays. If he had enough innings to qualify, he would be second in ERA and third in Opponents Batting Average for rookies in the AL this season. He has also allowed two earned runs or less in 4 out of his 5 starts this season. He is the guy with the least amount of innings this season, but might have the biggest up-side to remaining with the team past this weekend.
I am not going to beat around the bush here and throw more stats out about Price. We all know he has star potential and can be a huge cog in the Rays future. But the biggest thing that needs to be addressed is the simple fact he can also still be sent down without any cause for alarm. I think he is the most unlikely of the three right now to be optioned back to Durham, but this team has surprised me before with logical-illogical thinking.
Basically it is going to be a huge decision whoever the Rays decide to swap out of the rotation for Kazmir and Bradford’s returns. The most logical and practical options is to send Abreu down first, then make the needed arrangements or even a trade to make the second decision a no-brainer for the team. Niemann looks to be safe for a roster spot right now. That is not to mean he might be popped into the Bullpen like during the 2008 playoffs, but I think that might be a premature thing to do with the tall Texan.
Also I am thinking more and more that Price might have done all he can do down in Durham and learning on the fly up here might be his best option now. But a short turn back in Durham also working more on that change-up and learning a bit more on the constantly moving major league strike zone might also be in order. There is a 50-50 split on if he goes back to the Triple-A Bulls. But in the end, my head tells me he is here for the rest of the year baring injury or a major meltdown.
That leaves us with Sonnanstine. He has posted some of the biggest wins in the last two years for the team, but he has fallen down a notch or two in control and consistency. But as we all know Cleveland’s Cliff Lee is not the most consistent pitcher overall, but has gotten the wins when needed in his career. And Sonnanstine mirrors him in this respect. Sonny knows what needs to be done and will strive to do it at all costs, but is his clock winding down with the Rays.
Of the three pitchers mentioned in this blog, he is the one who might even garner the most attention on the trade front. We all know that the San Diego Padres are anxious to find more starting pitching, but could Sonnanstine be the right fit for that squad. Before the season a few teams were linked to Sonnanstine. Could any of these teams still be interested in the righthander?
The Rays might still keep him for pitching depth and send him to the minors or even put him in the Bullpen. But the stark reality is that he could go down and redefine himself at Durham and come up blazing and ready to reclaim a rotation spot. Nothing make a pitcher hungrier than knowing they can still produce at this level and being optioned down to the minors. But Sonny has done it before. He has gone from an unknown to a 14-game winner last season. I really do not envy those two men in the Ray clubhouse for this series of decisions. But even if they have to play a aggressive rendition of “Rock,Paper. Scissors” this will be done this weekend. Hopefully they can come to a consensus before the Wine Pong game comes out.