At the beginning of 2012, Jeff Niemann pitched well for the Rays and was one of their most dependable starters. In his first 7 starts, he went 2-3, but he posted a 3.38 ERA, striking out 30 versus 12 walks and allowing just 2 home runs (0.5 HR/9) in 34.2 IP. But then he suffered a fracture in his right leg on a freak play on May 14th, and he’s been gone ever since. Niemann was pitching well, but the Rays haven’t missed him too much. The Rays aren’t about to do any tinkering to their five-man rotation of David Price, James Shields, Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellickson, and Alex Cobb. The Rays’ 3.54 ERA by their starting pitchers has been tops in the American League by a considerable margin- the Oakland Athletics are in second at 3.81. Cobb has taken Niemann’s rotation spot and managed a solid 4.32 ERA, a mark that drops to 3.82 if you take out his June 25th start in which he allowed 8 runs. His FIP is an even more sparkling 3.29. You never know what can happen with injuries, as the Rays know all too well, but right now, there is no place to put Niemann in the rotation and it’s questionable whether they can fit him onto the 25-man roster at all. What should the Rays do with Niemann the rest of the season?
Niemann made his first rehab appearance on August 8th, allowing an unearned run in 2.2 innings in a rehab start with the High-A Charlotte Stone Crabs. Teams are only allowed to put players on rehab assignments for 20 days, meaning that the Rays have to make a decision on Niemann by August 27th. Don’t expect that to happen. Niemann is likely going to suffer some sort of setback (or “setback”) that’s going to prevent him from continuing his rehab at least temporarily and allow the Rays to extend his rehab until September 1st, when major league rosters expand to 40. That will prevent the Rays from having to designate for assignment someone like Sean Rodriguez or Elliot Johnson just to have Niemann on the major league roster for five extra days. But once Niemann is on the roster, how will the Rays use him?
During spring training, Niemann competed with Wade Davis for the Rays’ 5th rotation spot. Niemann won while Davis was sent to the bullpen, where he has thrived after struggling to a 4.45 ERA and a 4.70 FIP as a starter in 2011. Davis has posted a 2.54 ERA in 36 appearances, striking out 57 while walking 21 in 49.2 IP. Could the Rays try Niemann out of the bullpen in September? Niemann will definitely appear out of the bullpen with the Rays in the season’s final full month, but it’s unreasonable to expect anywhere near as much of an improvement. Davis has seen an uptick in velocity pitching in shorter stints, going from averaging 92.19 MPH on his fastball in 2011 to 93.80 MPH in 2012 according to Brooks Baseball. Niemann doesn’t throw hard to begin with, averaging under 91 MPH on his fastball in 2012, and he would essentially be the same pitcher out of the bullpen. Niemann has a 4.11 career ERA in the majors in 91 starts and 5 relief appearances from 2008 until this season. We know that Niemann has experienced stretches of dominance, including the 1.71 ERA he posted from July 2nd to August 16th of 2011, but his overall body of work would not be so much better out of the ‘pen.
Davis has been very successful being converted from a starter to a middle reliever. The same conversion would not work nearly as well as Niemann. But what could work well is a swingman role between starting and relieving. In September of 2011 when the Rays made their incredible comeback to make the postseason, they needed pitchers like Alex Torres and Dane De La Rosa to step up and give them 4 or 5 inning relief stints when their starters got knocked out early. On 9/24/11 for example, Niemann got knocked out after just 1 inning, but Torres followed with 5 shutout frames to earn the win as the Rays beat the Blue Jays. Instead of handing huge games to rookie pitchers, the Rays could instead go to the veteran Niemann. They could have him ready to give them length when needed, and if there was a doubleheader, he could start one of the games to prevent the Rays from needing to throw their entire rotation off. Is that the best use of Niemann’s talents? Probably not. But given what the team needs right now, that is the role that Niemann is currently lined up to play. And he better pitch well- you never know how much one game in the standings can mean at the end of the season.