Throughout spring training, the big storyline for the Rays has been the competition for the fifth starter job between Jeff Niemann and Wade Davis. The results are finally official: as Mark Topkin reported, Jeff Niemann will be the Rays’ fifth starter as Davis heads to the bullpen.
It tells you something that the Rays have a proven major league starter forced to the bullpen. The Rays’ upper-levels starting depth is an enormous organizational strength and it gives the Rays security in case of injury or poor performance and trade chips if they decide to go that route.
I’ve talked about here at RCG the fact that Davis has significantly more upside than Niemann. But the big thing that made the Rays choose Niemann to be their 5th starter is Davis’ comfort in the bullpen. Niemann has made just 8 relief appearances in 166 pro games. Davis has actually made less- 0 in 202 pro games. But he slid into the bullpen in the 2011 postseason and pitched well in 2 appearances, tossing 2.1 scoreless innings, and his stuff picked up as his fastball averaged 94 MPH and touched 96 (per Brooks Baseball). Davis has legitimate late-inning stuff if the Rays elect to go that route, throwing mid-90′s heat along with a nice curve, slider, and sinker, although we have to think that the Rays will keep Davis stretched out. You never know what can happen regarding pitchers, and Davis is a proven major league starter ready to replace anybody if needed. Davis will likely slide into a similar role to that of Andy Sonnanstine in 2011, pitching mostly in long relief, although the Rays will be more comfortable using Davis both to start games and in higher-leverage situations when necessary. Wade Davis will remain a valuable pitcher for the Rays, although pitching in a swingman role is definitely not what Davis had in mind entering spring training.
Jeff Niemann is a very streaky pitcher. From April until he went down with a back injury in early May, Niemann posted a 5.74 ERA and a 5.15 FIP. Then from when he came back in late June through a complete game win over the Red Sox at Fenway in mid-August, Niemann posted a 2.15 ERA and 3.35 FIP as he was the Rays’ most dependable starter during that stretch. But then he collapsed as the season came to a close, posting a 6.08 ERA and 5.34 FIP. But however he does it, Niemann is pretty consistent on a seasonal basis. The past three seasons, Niemann’s ERA has ranged from 3.90 to 4.40 and his FIP from 4.07 to 4.61. Niemann is by no means an elite pitcher, but especially in a 5th starter role, he’ll give the Rays quality innings and at times flash dominance and help carry the team.
Even if we’ll probably never know what type of season Davis would have put up in 2011 as a starter, this decision is for the best. Niemann and Davis get clarity, and the Rays will have a dependable 5th stater and a versatile bullpen arm with excellent stuff. Rays fans have a lot to look forward to for the 2012 season, and now we have a better idea what to expect as the season rapidly approaches.