Results tagged ‘ Carlos Hernandez ’

Rays Pitching still has Question Marks

 
 
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The only thing right now keeping Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Wade Davis as a question mark entering the final weeks of the Spring is Davis himself. Davis could have made some movement towards silencing his critics, and possibly securing his fifth spot in the rotation with a good outing, but instead Davis stubbed his toes. And that lackluster outing has added fuel to the fire that Davis might not be with the Rays on April 6th for the Home Opener and might be headed down to Durham for a month or so to regroup.

 

And before his last outing, the idea of the Rays sending Davis down to stop his Major League service clock seemed to be the only logical reason to ship Davis back to the minors until at least the middle of May and sticking with Mr “Plug In”, Andy Sonnanstine on the Rays roster. The versatility of Sonnanstine right now might lay heavily on their upcoming fifth rotation decision as Sonnanstine could effectively switch from Bullpen or staring positions as needed until either Davis or J P Howell are again shown to be a positive move for the club.
 

And it was only last Spring that Davis also took himself out of the thought process for the battle for the Rays fifth spot in the rotation in 2009 with another similar bad outing at the wrong time. But this year, after a great late season campaign up starting games for the Rays, it seems that Davis had his future with the Rays in 2010 firmly in his pitching hands. And with Sonnanstine not flinching at all, but showing his resourceful nature and rebounding effectively from a bad 2009, it seems that the Rays could, should and might send Davis back for a month to push his service clock back a season.
 

And this move is totally reminiscent of the way the Rays pushed Third Base prospect Evan Longoria back to Durham in 2008 for a small period of time before Longoria was then brought up weeks later due to an injury to Willy Aybar. But with the Rays recent injury bug there is speculation that both could make the Rays roster without incident this Spring and push away the competition for the fifth spot. Which poses a few questions to me. If both starters make the roster, with one pitcher doing spot duty as a long reliever, will that reorganize the overall chemistry and roles of the Rays Bullpen, with the exceptions being closer Rafael Soriano and Dan Wheeler?
 

And if Sonnanstine is given the additional slot on the Rays 25-man roster, does that mean that Joaquin Benoit doesn’t have a realistic chance to make the Rays roster? There have been moments where Benoit has looked like his former Rangers heydays, and others where he has looked like he is still seeking the answers. But Benoit has done exactly what the Rays have asked of him, and is currently tied with several relievers in total game appearances this Spring, plus Benoit has looked extremely good over the last week. Could Benoit be peaking at the right moment to get in the mindset of the Rays Coaches as the clock winds down this Spring?
 

And with Howell out for at least a month, could fellow lefties Heath Phillips or even Carlos Hernandez get a chance again at the Major League level to occupy Howell’s spot in the Rays Bullpen, then bring about some major decisions by the Rays when Howell returns. Or could the Rays take their chances and try to sneak either pitcher through waivers and back to the minors upon Howell’s return?
 

Howell’s injury brings up the new thought of both Davis and Sonnanstine staying up with the big club, but could the move compromise the Rays Bullpen’s overall integrity a bit. With Sonnanstine joining the motley crew, could the move force former long reliever Lance Cormier into Howell’s old role on the short term, or do the Rays hope that Benoit can assume Howell’s role of facing hitters from both sides of the plate, and leave Cormier to mostly specialized rightie roles, or as a second possible long reliever?
 

 
Gail Burton/AP

But then there is another Bullpen question that some people have been mumbling about since late in 2009. Could Rays reliever Grant Balfour be a problem or could he be hiding something? Balfour has been decreasing his overall pitch velocity and looking pretty vulnerable to hitters over the last several months of 2009. Could he just of had a weak arm also towards the end of 2009 from his overuse in 2008 and 2009, or could he just have run out of tricks and the hitters are wise to him now? And again this Spring, Balfour has not had the best Spring again here in 2010 showing either he is a slow starter, or maybe the 2008 season’s magic might have finally left his fingers.

 

There are still many pitching questions left to be answered, but the Rays have said that a definite decision on their 2010 rotation will be coming soon. One highly probable suggestion is to flip-flop current the 3 and 4 starters Jeff Neimann and David Price to break up the right-handed heavy Rays front of the rotation. Something that was unique for the Rays in 2009 was their addition of the second leftie when Price finally joined the Rays mid-season rotation so the Rays could break up the righty-lefty batting order match-ups during every series, but with Scott Kazmir now gone, only David Price remains in the Rays rotation.

The move would effectively eliminate a lefty dominant line-up for an entire Rays opponent’s series, and break up any chance of another teams getting into a hitting rhythm against the Rays by possibly facing three right-handers in a row. Big decisions, hard decisions. But then again, that is why the Rays brass get paid the big money.

 

My personal hopes are that the team uses Benoit effectively in the Rays Bullpen to begin the season, with Sonnanstine as the fifth starter for about a month. That would give Benoit a chance to show he still has the stuff to compete at the Major League level. When Benoit is on the ball, he is simply magical on the mound. And this move could also effectively buy the Rays an added year of Davis’s services, plus give the team more time to showcase Sonnanstine’s talents if they decide they might want to seek a trade, or they could simply send Sonnanstine back to the minors as a insurance policy against further pitching injuries.
 

Whatever the Rays decide, the team has to effectively decide what the roles Rays player’s like Benoit, Cormier and leftie Randy Choate will perform before they can streamline their thought process and make an adequate and concise decision. This might be the final season the Rays have this much offensive firepower for awhile, so the team needs to make the right adjustments and the right moves to counter that offense with a great pitching staff and effective Bullpen in 2010.

 
Chris O’Meara/AP

Rays Manager Joe Maddon is famous for using the quote, ” Starting pitching sets the tone of the game.” If the team doesn’t find the right solutions to shore up their back-end of the rotation, it will just fester into a situation every 5 days for the Rays. Davis and Sonnastine have to provide that comfort and confidence level over the next few days for the Rays to begin their final decision process. But with a swift decision, it also sets up the Rays pitchers to get into a rhythm now, even before the season begins and adjust accordingly to their rotation slots.

The Rays had a few setbacks recently on their pitching front, with Howell going down this weekend and question marks still surrounding several Bullpen 2010 roles and abilities. But in the end, the Rays have to do what is right for the team to fulfill their quest to again play deep into October. With both sides of the ball clicking for the Rays, the sky could be the limit in 2010, but quickly even that scenario can falter if an injury bug decides to hit the team, or a starter falters early….but then again, that is why we play 162 games before crowning a Division Champion.

The “Dude” Put on the Shelf Until May

 

Rays 2010 photo day | www.RaysRenegade.com
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Dude, Got to tell you this recent news is really killing the positive Rays aura of a great Friday night beat down here in Port Charlotte of the New York Yankees split squad. And it was made special by the Rays committing to doing the little things tonight as the Rays produced runs little by little to take the Rays to their Major League Baseball leading 12th win of the Spring.
 

But the news that really threw my karma karma chameleon into a blender was the sound bytes heard from field level that Rays reliever J P Howell could possibly missing almost a month of the 2010 season due to some shoulder weakness. It really bummed me out totally for the game and had me sneaking around looking for answers than watching the game in progress in front of me. And I did find some answers, but they are not the one I wanted to hear….Bummer man.
 

So here I am sitting in a small wings and things joint just a mile from Charlotte Sport Park and more than a few fellow Rays fans have also expressed some worry and concern and a bit of frustration that “the Dude” will be delayed in his smiling flight nightly out to the Rays Bullpen. But considering all the innings (66.2 innings) and appearances (69), not including Howell’s Bullpen stint with the USA squad during last season’s World Baseball Classic.
 

In reality, only fellow Rays reliever Dan Wheeler has put in almost as much innings (124.0 innings) and appearances (139) than Howell’s last two years ( 156.0 innings) and appearances (133) that easily shows that the “Dude” has put in some vicious overtime in during the last two Rays seasons. And in reality, even with his increase in appearances, he did decrease his total innings by almost 23 innings in 2009.
 

But Wheeler has been a reliever for most of his MLB career, and was just one appearance shy of making his fifth straight 70 game appearance seasonal mark. Wheeler was trained to be a reliever for the last 9 seasons. The last time Wheeler even started more than 1 game a season was in 1999 when he was originally with the Rays.

April2009 | www.RaysRenegade.com
Chris O’Meara/ AP

Howell came from the Rays starter ranks not even two seasons ago, and maxed out himself in 2008 both during the season, and hitting the mound sick in Game 5.5 of the 2008 World Series. The “Dude” is a gamer people who doesn’t let minor obstacles get in his way, but this one situation got him firmly by the shoulder’s and let him know…

something is wrong. When the Rays first opened camp this Spring, I was down in Port Charlotte and saw the now dark-haired Howell throwing on that first day, but something caught my eye. Sure he might have been throwing softly like most of the Rays pitchers’ that first workout, but the arm angle looked a bit…well, off to me. I didn’t think much of it being the first workout and expecting some of the guys to just toss it lightly and get back in the flow within the next week.

But the second time I was down in Port Charlotte, Howell also had stepped it up a bit, but it did not seem right to me. I had watch him throw in the Rightfield corner over the last two season’s worth of Sundays, and something did not seem right. But then again, the whole time Howell has been with the Rays, he has not been known to blow away a radar gun with his pitches.

 

So when the Rays announced prior to the end of tonight’s game that the team would discuss further the possibilities of maybe delaying his Spring debut, it did not throw shockwaves through me, but I felt more of an air of caution by the team with the announcement. And you know that Howell is the perfect Rays “company man” for the Rays.

If Rays Manager Joe Maddon or Pitching Coach Jim Hickey told Howell to go out onto the mound and do the “Hokey Pokey” before he pitched, Howell would because the “Dude” is a total team type of guy.

 

And maybe this weekend was suppose to be Howell’s time to show everyone that his 2009 late season shutdown was just to let him chill a bit and regain some of that snap to his curveball again in 2010. I heard prior to the game tonight from a Rays player revealing to me that “Howell was not in uniform tonight, and might not be this weekend at all.” That revelation in itself told me something was wrong, so I went looking for Rays Medical Guru Ron Porterfield. Instead of finding Porterfield, I stumbled upon some interesting information.
 

Spring Training 2009 | www.RaysRenegade.com
Pat Manfredo/ Rays fan

It seemed that Howell when he first reported to the Rays this Spring showed some weakness early in strength and endurance testing and that the team decided to take a slow path and let him gain the necessary shoulder muscle and strength back before advancing in his workout program. Also Howell could tell something was off, but could not put a finger on the situation at the time. And Howell has since been examined by Dr Koko Eaton, the Rays orthopedic specialist, but I could not get a confirmation on his consult.

 

But I think the Rays are being smart here. Why ruin a perfectly good left-hander so early in the process when you could shut him down and get him healthy through rehabbing and specialized workouts to bring him back within 4 weeks or possibly before May 1,2010. Howell is valuable as a reliever who can face both left and right-handed hitter with success, and to rush him back to the team could jeopardize more than just Howell overall health, it could put a huge crimp in the Rays overall seasonal plans for the Rays Bullpen.
 
 
So for a bit the “Dude” will just chill and follow doctors orders before maybe starting a minor league rehab assignment in the middle of April with the Rays throwing out a possible Saturday, May 1st target date for his 2010 debut. That would work out to be during a Rays home stand where both Oakland and Kansas City will come to town before the Rays leave on a West Coast 10-game road trip against Seattle, Oakland and the Los Angeles Angels.

Howell is a valuable and rare relieving commodity to the Rays, and losing him for a possible 30-plus day stint could be tricky, but it is not impossible. Both with only current leftie specialist Randy Choate as the only other left-hander in the Bullpen, could this open the door for pitcher Carlos Hernandez or maybe Heath Phillips getting a longer Rays look past Spring Training as left-handed insurance policies?

 

We still have time to decide this, but the Rays have worked with only one leftie before in their Bullpen, but that was former Ray Trever Miller. And it is a bit of bummer that some are questioning that Howell’s off season workout program might be to blame for this ailment. Considering the guy got married this off season and went to Bora Bora, hopefully rowing in that canoe did not do damage to his shoulder.
 
 
Seriously, this put a damper in the relieving corps, but it is not unfixable since there is still time, and the Rays have viable options in-house to counter the injury. The good thing is the Rays did not greet Howell with a plane ticket to Birmingham, Alabama to see Dr James Andrew. That in itself should be Rays fans stoked that the “Dude” will be back soon pointing to fans and just chilling on the Rays Bullpen bench…Catch ya later Dudes!

Rays Take Down Reds 3-1

 


It is always good to see Jonny Gomes at a game. Iman the guy always has a smile on his face and is always eager to see fans and player he knows while traveling around during this years Spring Training. So here I am in Gomes-land, the Sarasota complex where the Cincinnati Reds will call home for only the next month. If Gomes does make the Reds 25-man squad, we will not see him here in Florida in 2010. that is right, for the first time in a long while, next season’s Grapefruit League might not have Gomes to kick around anymore.


The main reason is that the Reds have decided to move their spring operations to Arizona next year. This will make most of the team still here in the Grapefruit league have to play split-squad games because there will only be 15 teams left in Florida. You know that MLB will be laboring and straining to again get a 16th team back in the Sunshine State, but who could it be. Everyone who currently play out in the Arizona sun seemed to be happy and pleased with their complexes, and none of them have voice even any unhappiness about their next year. So this spring might be the swan song of Mr Gomes. It will be a said day when the Rays last play the Red  here again on March 29th.

Today’s game will be the second start of the spring for Scott Kazmir. He is still fighting some of the rust of the short off season, but he reported to camp with 20 pounds of additional muscle and lean throwing ability and wants to regain his edge again this year. That should be a great thing to hear if you are a Rays fan. When this guy feels good, it is usually a bad sign for opponents in the American League.  So he takes the mound today looking to gain more control and to stretch his inning totals for the first time this year. And that could also be a bad thing for batters.

Brandon Arroyo took the mound first today for the Reds and was trying to seek some early rhythm in his second start of the spring.  Jason Bartlett lead off the game on base for the Rays as he was hit by a Arroyo pitch.  Carl Crawford then hit a single to right field to put two men on with no out in the game. Evan Longoria then hit a nasty liner to Keppinger at shortstop who grabbed the liner and then tossed to second base to get Bartlett who had wandered too far off the bag for a double play. Carlos Pena then hit a double that scored Crawford from first base and gave the Rays a 1-0 lead. Pat Burrell, who was playing right field today then came up and hit a RBI-double down the left field line to score Pena. Willy Aybar then struck out to end the Rays rally, but they now led 2-0.

Willy Taveras is the first batter to face Kazmir today and he was selective with Taveras before getting him to strikeout on a breaking pitch for the first out. Jeff Keppinger then came to the plate and hit a solid ball through the hole between short and third for the first base runner of the game. He then  stole second on Kazmir, who seemed to take an extra amount of time between pitches today on the mound. Layne Nix, who is fighting for a spot on this team then hit a grounder to Willy Aybar at second. Aybar then flipped the ball to Pena for the second out of the inning. Keppinger moved over to third on the play. Daryle Ward then struck out to end the Reds attempt at a rally.

                         
 

 
Arroyo then took the mound in the top of the second inning and got Dioner Navarro to hit a grounder to second that was easily tossed to first for the first out of the inning. Ben Zobrist then hit a short fly ball that Arroyo fielded for the second out. Since we are playing in a National League park. It was the home teams decision on if the Designated hitter rule would be sued today. Cincinnati Manager Dusty Baker decided to let the pitcher’s hit to get his team in mental shape for the regular season. So Kazmir came to the plate for his first chance to hit in 2009. He proceeded to strike out to end the inning for the Rays.

Kazmir came to the mound again in the second inning and Juan Francisco to hit a hard grounder to Aybar, who threw to Pena for the first out. Craig Tatum the hit a single to left field to put a man on for the Reds. Norris Hopper then hit a fly out to center for the second out of the inning. Paul Janish then hit an RBI-triple off the top of the left field wall to score Tatum. With the game taking part in a National League park, it was the Reds decision for the pitcher’s to bat today. So with two outs in the inning, Arroyo came up to bat in the inning. He ended hitting a deep fly ball to Ben Zobrist in center field for the final out of the inning.

Arroyo came out again in the third inning only down one run and with the Rays top of the order coming up in the inning. Bartlett started the inning by striking out. Crawford then struck out. That made it six Rays batters in a row to go down to Arroyo today. Longoria then hit a fly ball to right-center field to end the inning. That again sent down the Rays 1-2-3 for the second straight inning. Sine his first inning, Arroyo has settled down and has hit his marks for the Reds.

In the third inning, the Rays again sent Kazmir out to the mound and he quickly got Taveras to hit a grounder to Aybar that was easily thrown to Pena for the first out. Keppinger then got his second hit of the day on a ball that just missed a diving Pena down the right field line. Nix then came to the plate and hit a fielder choice to the right of Pena that he threw to second to get the lead runner for the second out. Ward then connected for a single to center field to put two men on base. Francisco then struck out to end the Reds chance to try and tie the score.

 

 

 
Arroyo, feeling a bit energized by his last few innings came out ready for the fourth inning. Pena started off the inning by hitting a ball to right of first base and Arroyo came over to take the pitch for the first out in a 3-1 put out.  Burrell then hit a fly ball to left field for a quick second out. Willy Aybar then came up and hit his first homer of the season out against the wind for a 3-1 Rays lead. Navarro then hit a ball to left field that was easily taken for the third out of the inning. So the only base runner since the first inning took Arroyo deep for another Rays run. Kazmir again came out in the fourth inning and  Tatum again made an attempt to go 2-2, but Zobrist made a great adjustment on the ball in the last second and recorded the first out of the inning. Hopper then made another solid hit towards that same area of center field, but Zobrist again was there for the out. Janish then hit a sharp ball to longoria, but was thrown out for the third out of the inning.

Arroyo came out for the Red again in the fifth inning. He quickly got Zobrist to hit a ball to second that was trapped and thrown to first for the first out. Gabe Gross then came on to pinch hit for Kazmir. He hit a soft ball down the first base line and again Arroyo came over and took the pitch  and step on the bag for the second out of the inning. Bartlett then got on base after a walk and moved over to second on a wild pitch by Arroyo. At that point Reds Manager dusty Baker came out and replaced Arroyo with Daniel Herrera. He then got Crawford to hit a long ball to right field for the final out in the inning.

 
Lance Cormier came to the mound for the Rays.  He got Kevin Barker, who was pinch hitting for Hererra to ground out to Longoria, who then threw to first for the out. Tavera then singles to right field and then stole second base to get into scoring position for the Reds. Keppinger then hit a slow grounder to Cormier who threw to Pena for the second out. Nix then struck out to end the Reds chance at trying to tie the game.

 
The Red sent reliever Arthur Rhodes to the mound for the sixth inning. He quickly got Longoria to hit a ground out to lead off the inning. Pena then walked to give the Rays only their second base runner since the first inning. Burrell got jammed and hit a foul ball out to first base for the second out of the inning. Aybar then hit a long fly ball out to center field that was converted for the third out of the inning. The Rays sent Cormier out again for the bottom of the sixth. He got the first batter Ward to hit a grounder to Aybar at second that he quickly converted for the first out. Maddon then came out and called in Jeff Niemann from the Bullpen. Niemann is one of the last three guys effectively fighting to fill the fifth spot in the Rays rotation this spring. He quickly got Francisco to fly out, but gave up the first walk of the day by Rays pitchers to Chris Kroski. He then got Hooper to line out to Brignac at shortstop to end the inning.

 
The Red sent reliever David Weathers to the mound in the top of the seventh inning. Weathers is trying to come back from injury this year to make the Reds Bullpen. He first faced Justin Ruggiano, who struck out to start the inning. Michel Hernandez then hit a hard ball to third, but it was easily thrown to first for the second out. Gross then struck out to provide a fast 1-2-3 inning for the Reds. Niemann again came out to the mound in the bottom of the inning. He got the Reds lead-off hitter Danny Richar to hit a bouncer down to Chris Richards at first that he easily stepped on the bag for the first out. Joey Votto then came up and hit another ball to Elliot Johnson at second base, which he threw to Richards at first for the second out of the inning. Darnell McDonald then hit a sharp grounder to Rays Olmedo at third for the final out of the inning.


 
        
 

Francisco Cordero, who like Weathers is trying to come back after injury took the mound in the 8th inning. He quickly gave up a single to right field to Reid Brignac. Rays Olmedo then hit a grounder to second that was thrown to second and then to first to complete a 4-6-3 double play. It was the first one of the day against the Rays. Johnson then came up and hit a deep ball to center for the third out of the inning. Niemann again took the mound for the Rays and faced Luis Bolivar first in the inning. He got him to hit a short grounder back to the mound that Niemann threw to first for the first out of the inning. Maddon then came out and pulled Niemann from the game and brought in Wade Davis.

Davis, like Niemann had started Spring Training with the idea of trying to secure that fifth rotation spot. But the Rays seem to have other plans for Davis this season. He will probably be the first pitcher the Rays bring up if an injury or a trade makes an available spot open in the Rays roster for a pitcher. First batter to face Davis is former Ray Jonny Gomes. Davis tries to pitch around Gomes, but ends up walking him. Then former Rays farm hand Wes Bankston comes to bat for the Reds. Bankston hit a long fly out to center that is easily converted for the second out of the inning. Adam Rosales then hit another ball into deep center, but it is caught for the third out of the inning.

 
Jared Burton takes the mound for the top of the ninith inning for the Reds. Hernandez hits  grounder to short that is quickly thrown to first for the first out.  Chris Richard then hit a ball down the first baseline that is quickly scooped up by Bankston for the second out of the inning. Then Rays 2008 first round draft pick, Tim Beckham, who is getting a bit of extra time with the big club this spring comes to bat. He ends up striking out swinging to end the inning for the Rays.

 
Davis takes the mound in the top of the ninth with a chance to garner a save opportunity. He gets Kroski to ground out to shortstop for the first out. Then Jacque Jones comes up and hit another grounder to second that is easily converted for the second out of the inning. Richar then hit a swirling ball down the left field line that Beckham circles and then lunges and finally secures in his glove while slipping on the foul line for the third out and to preserve the Rays victory.

Jeff Niemann did nothing to discount his stride to take the fifth rotation spot. He ended up going 2 innings and only gave up a walk. but he also lowered his spring ERA to .082. I am thinking that barring a bad outing in the next two weeks, the spot in the rotation might have been decided today. I am not going to put it in stone until the next outing by Jason Hammel, but the writing is beginning to be written on the wall. Carlos Hernandez also still has an outside shot at maybe gaining ground and maybe a roster spot with a great spring.


 
Photo credits:  1) RRCollections
                         2) The Enquirer ( Michael E Keating )
                         3) The Enquirer ( Michael E. Keating )
                         4) The Enquirer ( Kathy Willens)

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.


Photo Credits for today’s blog go to: http://www.TBO.com, http://www.theStPetersburgTimes.com

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