The Tampa Bay Rays don't have a lot to sort out in the final days leading up to their April 2 opener, but they face what looks to be an intriguing and interesting decision on whether to give the last spot in the rotation to Jeff Niemann or Roberto Hernandez.
Both have pitched relatively well this spring, posting similar numbers through their first five appearances.
Niemann had a 2.13 ERA through 12 2/3 innings, allowing 11 hits and three walks while striking out nine. Opponents were hitting .234 against him. Hernandez (formerly known as Fausto Carmona) worked 15 innings, allowing 13 hits and five walks while striking out 12, allowing a .236 average and compiling a 3.60 ERA.
Niemann won the final spot in the rotation last spring, but he missed most of the season. He broke his right leg in mid-May, then after making it back for a Sept. 1 start, shoulder inflammation sidelined him the rest of the season.
When he is healthy, he can put together impressive runs, but injuries have been an issue throughout his career. Though he says he has been fit and feeling good this spring, his fastball was clocked only in the mid to high 80s (at least 2-3 mph below his norm) in a March 14 outing. The Rays gave him extra time before his next scheduled outing on March 22.
Hernandez has not had much success since a stellar 2007 campaign in Cleveland, going 33-48 with a 5.01 ERA from 2008-11 and then missing most of last season following his age/identity fraud arrest. However, the Rays have a good track record of getting veterans back on track, and the potential for him to work 200 innings is appealing, especially given the trade of James Shields.
The Rays has talked about the possibility of whoever doesn't make the rotation going to the bullpen, though neither seems like a particularly good fit. Trading Niemann also would be a possibility, though the drop in velocity could raise further questions. Both make around $3 million.
The Rays may have to pick whether to go for the potential upside with Niemann and wait to see if/when he breaks down, or they could opt for the depth and security Hernandez could provide.
"Figuring out how to set up our rotation is probably the biggest decision we have," executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "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."