Tampa was bit again with the injury bug on Monday, as Jeff Niemann sustained a small fracture in his fibula from an Adam Lind comebacker. This is a tough loss for the Rays and Niemann, as the tall righty was off to a strong start to the season. In his first 6 full starts, he had a 3.47 ERA with 30 strikeouts in 33.2 innings. His record was only 2-3 prior to the injury, but he has yet to give up more than 3 runs in a start – better than most 5th starters. Niemann has been placed on the DL, and will be out 4-6 weeks, so a replacement arm will be needed.
The first name that comes to mind to replace Niemann is Wade Davis, who was in contention for a spot in the rotation during spring training. Davis has been one of the best arms in the bullpen so far this season, giving up only 4 earned runs in 17.2 innings. He has shown that he can go multiple innings, and is very valuable in the bullpen. Joe Maddon seems to agree – he said Monday night, “we haven’t obviously decided anything yet but I like what (Davis) is doing in the bullpen,” according to the Tampa Bay Times. Stretching out Davis as a starter only to bring him back to relief after 5-7 starts could jeopardize the success he has had in the pen. If a replacement starter doesn’t come from the major league club, the Durham Bulls are the next place to look.
24 year old Alex Cobb is one name that sticks out on the Bulls’ roster. He has a 4.14 ERA in 41.1 innings this year, but if you take out one bad start his ERA drops to 2.95. The 2006 4th round pick can strike guys out (44 strikeouts this season), and showed his potential last season with the Rays. He made 9 spot starts in the majors in 2011, compiling a 3-2 record with a 3.42 ERA. Cobb started last night for the Bulls (he pitched 5 shutout innings with 8 strikeouts), making an easy transition to take Niemann’s spot in the rotation .
If Alex Cobb isn’t given the ball for the Rays, Chris Archer might be. The 23 year old is in his 7th (!) season in the minors, and was part of the Matt Garza trade. Since joining the Rays’ organization he has not had much success, but he has a 2.45 ERA over his past 5 starts. Now could be a good time for the Rays to give Archer his first career start in the majors, as he is as hot as he has been in some time. He has been able to strike batters out in the minors, but his walk rate is high (28 walks in 42 innings this season). Archer last pitched Sunday, so he would be able to step into Niemann’s next scheduled start as well.
Although Wade Davis might bring the best results as the temporary starter, the team would be hurt by his absence in the bullpen. Alex Cobb seems to be the most likely candidate to get the nod, as he has shown success making major league starts, and has been effective this year. Don’t dismiss Chris Archer though, as this is as good a time to give him his first major league start as any. Fortunately the Rays’ pitching is its strength, so the loss of Niemann isn’t devastating, but hopefully he can return to the way he has been pitching soon.