With the impending return of Jeff Niemann, the Rays may be in a bit of a quandary. As it stands now, they already have six pitchers that have performed well in a starting role, although Wade Davis has acclimated himself quite well to the bullpen. Yet, at the time of his injury, Niemann had been one of the better starters in the Rays rotation. Despite a record of only 2-3, he had put together a 3.38 ERA, struck out 30 batters against only 12 walks, and had a 1.18 WHiP.
Even with the injury to Niemann, the Rays have still had a dominant pitching staff, ranking first in ERA and strikeouts, and have given up the fewest hits in the American League. David Price has been dominant, and looks like a potential contender for the Cy Young Award. Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore have been solid overall. James Shields has rediscovered himself after a rough start, and has gone 3-0 with a 1.80 ERA in his last four starts. Alex Cobb, despite his disastrous start against the Angels on August 18th, had been pitching much better, having won three consecutive starts while giving up only one earned run in each.
Given the recent success from the starters, the Rays may need to get creative to find a way to fit Niemann in when he is ready to be activated. Last year, Joe Maddon employed a six man rotation for a portion of the year, despite the protests of the starters. Could the Rays go back to that concept this year?
One factor that may weigh in on how to align the rotation may be the workload of the starters. Both David Price and James Shields rank in the top ten in the American League in innings pitched, with Shields fifth and Price seventh. Even Matt Moore cracked the top twenty, making the Rays the only team with three pitchers in the top twenty for innings pitched.
The six man rotation could not only allow the Rays to give the starters a bit more rest, but it could also allow them to see how well Niemann fares down the stretch. As the playoffs approach, having that extra starter may allow them to set up their rotation, even if they do end up as a Wild Card team.
While the Rays may not yet know what their plans for the rotation will be, the return of Jeff Niemann should be beneficial as the Rays continue their playoff push.