August 23, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays starting pitcher Alex Cobb (53) is congratulated by teammates after throwing a complete game against the Oakland Athletics at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What Does Alex Cobb's All But Guaranteed Spot in the Rays' Rotation Mean for the Rays' Other Starters?

On the day that pitchers and catchers reported to the Rays’ spring training home in Port Charlotte, Florida, Rays fans heard the first major news item from manager Joe Maddon: that right-hander Alex Cobb was “pretty much ensconced ” in the Rays’ rotation behind David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, and Matt Moore. Obviously that news was extremely exciting to Cobb and well-deserved after he pitched great in 2012, and we now know that pending a shocking series of events, Alex Cobb will be the Rays’ fourth starter in 2013. But that announcement is going to have an effect on a lot more players than just Alex Cobb and provides us with quite a bit of insight as to how spring training is going to plan out for the Rays.

Now that Cobb is officially the fourth starter, the Rays have one spot left in their rotation and four pitchers qualified to fill it: Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi. With Niemann and Hernandez signed to major league contracts guaranteeing them $3MM and $3.25MM respectively, it’s basically guaranteed that the fifth starter spot is going to come down to one of them. And from there, a few different scenarios arise.

If Niemann wins the Rays’ fifth starter job, things will be fairly simple. He’ll be the fifth starter and Hernandez will head to the bullpen. But if Hernandez wins the job, things could get extremely crazy. If Hernandez wins, would Niemann really head to the bullpen considering he’s made just 8 relief appearances his entire pro career? Unlike someone like Wade Davis, Niemann isn’t someone whose stuff is going to see much of an uptick out of the bullpen, meaning he’s going to end up as a long reliever and not a potential high-leverage guy like Hernandez could be, and having him on the roster in a long relief role would be a complete waste. Thus if Niemann lost the rotation competition to Hernandez but stayed healthy in the process, seemingly the most likely scenario is that he would be traded prior to the season, ironically in similar fashion to when Jason Hammel was dealt after Niemann beat him out for a rotation spot back in 2009. That would clear Niemann’s salary and open up an additional spot in the Rays’ bullpen for a more usable reliever. However, we might actually see Niemann lose the Rays’ fifth starter competition but still make the roster and still make the start the first time the fifth starter spot comes up, on April 6th. How does that make any sense? Because after April 6th, the Rays don’t need their 5th starter again until April 16th, and you might as well have Hernandez’ electric arm serving in a relief role as opposed to having him make one start and then resting for a few days and basically having two pitchers on their roster barely seeing time on the mound instead of one.

On April 16th, the 5th starter spot comes up for the first of three times in eleven days and only then do the Rays really need their 5th starter for an extended period of time. Because of that, we could conceivably see Niemann get beat out for a job in spring training and then make his final start in a Rays uniform on the 6th, hopefully helping the Rays win the game but also making an audition for other teams, before the Rays trade him and replace him on the roster with a reliever and work with an eight-man bullpen instead of the usual seven because they need only four starting pitchers for the next nine days thanks to an off-day. But at the same time, if the Rays liked what they saw from Niemann, didn’t get the type of offers they were looking for in exchange for him, and also were impressed with what Hernandez was doing out of the bullpen, they could always reverse their spring training decision and give Niemann the job in the end beginning on the 16th. They’re certainly not going to out-leverage themselves into trading Niemann for basically nothing but salary relief- if he got caught in limbo because say he didn’t look completely healthy in that start and no team gave the Rays a real offer for him, the Rays would probably place him on the DL and evaluate their options from there. But one way or another, it seems extremely likely that Niemann is going to end up making that April 6th start and the competition for the 5th starter spot will stretch beyond spring training. Heck, given the eccentricity of Joe Maddon’s managerial style, it wouldn’t be that surprising if the Rays didn’t name a 5th starter coming out of spring training and Maddon said something like “both guys threw the ball really well and we’ll continue to figure out who will be the 5th starter as the season progresses.”

The possibility of Niemann getting traded is also a positive development for Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi as spring training begins because if one of them were to really impress the Rays above anyone else, they could certainly seize that 5th starter job. Both Archer and Odorizzi saw time in the major leagues last year, and while both of them might be best served by getting some more work at Triple-A, Archer on his control and changeup and Odorizzi on his overall command and getting more consistency on his secondary pitches, maybe one or both of them could turn a corner in spring training and suddenly be right up there in the Rays’ 5th starter competition. At this point, it seems likely that both Archer and Odorizzi will start the 2013 season in the minor leagues- but if Niemann made that April 6th start and then was traded, one of them could get called up in time to start on the 16th after making a few tune-up starts at Triple-A. Because of the presence of Cobb, it’s impossible for both Archer and Odorizzi to become part of the Rays’ rotation unless there was an injury to another starter. But while the competition in spring training is going to be primarily between Niemann and Hernandez, Archer and Odorizzi can know for certain that if they make major strides in the spring and out-pitch all their competition, the Rays’ 5th starter spot will be ripe for the taking.

Alex Cobb essentially being handed a rotation spot means that the Rays will be having four pitchers, Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer, and Jake Odorizzi, competing for the final spot on their rotation. It’s going to be far from a straight competition with the losers not making the roster- if Niemann loses, he’ll probably make the roster to begin the season, make one start, and then get traded, while if Hernandez loses, he’ll head to the bullpen- but at the same time it’s anybody’s game and is going to be exciting to see what happens. Unlike Cobb, these four starters have nothing guaranteed for them as spring training begins. What they do know, though, is that the opportunity will be there for each of them if they pitch well enough, and at the end of the spring, the best pitcher will be the one that comes out ahead.

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Tags: Alex Cobb Chris Archer Jake Odorizzi Jeff Niemann Roberto Hernandez Tampa Bay Rays

5 Comments on What Does Alex Cobb’s All But Guaranteed Spot in the Rays’ Rotation Mean for the Rays’ Other Starters?

  1. Ryan says:

    The 5th spot is probably Niemann’s to lose right now. Hernandez is a pretty big wildcard in the rotation with his lack of success recently, and Archer and Odorizzi, like you said are most likely headed to the minors to start out at least.

  2. Dave L says:

    This well earned development of Cobb feeds to my initial assertion that the newly coined Hernandez was brought here to compete for a starter’s role and eat up some of Sheilds, not WD40′s innings

    Archer and Odorizzi while excellent prospects could still use some further marination in Durham. They will both make spot starts in interleague play, against Houston, etc.

    Barring an actual March injury, expect either Niemann or Hernandez whoever looks most out of sorts to develop some sort of affliction, real or imagined which sends them to the injury list before Opening Day to see if the other holds up physically and performance wise.

    Only stellar, injury free prolonged play by the five 2012 rostered Rays starters could force Hernandez to the bullpen in late may or June but i just don’t see that happening, fate has a way of challenging February projections.

    Either has a chance to start 20+ games in 2013.

  3. OTown RaysFan says:

    let’s say that your conjecture plays out to the point that hernandez (or someone else) seizes the #5 spot, and the rays decide to trade neimann, what kind of return could they expect for him, realistically? also, i’m also concerned that if hernandez DOES become the fifth starter, that he could reestablish himself as a too pricey free agent for the rays in 2014, whereas niemann doesn’t achieve free agent status until 2015.

  4. Hans K says:

    They won’t trade Nieman, because they don’t like to trade good pitchers. Hernandez will be in the bullpen, Archer and Odorizzi will be in Durham. In case of injuries they have great replacements down the stretch. Keep in mind that Price could be traded next year, so they would like to have a lot a quality pitchers in their system.

  5. Robbie_Knopf says:

    Clarifying something, the most likely scenario has to be that Niemann wins the 5th starter job because that keeps things simple- Niemann continues the role he’s been playing, Hernandez stays on the team in a bullpen role, and Archer and Odorizzi get more time in the minor leagues.

    Now let me address some more individualized points. @disqus_ZyiPa4o5JW:disqus They don’t like trading good pitchers, but if Niemann loses the rotation spot and begins looking like a wasted salary, he’ll certainly be dealt. WIthout Niemann, the Rays still have 7 starters, and Archer looked really good in the major leagues at the end of last year- would the Rays really have any qualms promoted him to a rotation spot when someone gets hurt? A Price trade would certainly reduce the Rays’ pitching depth drastically, but Niemann isn’t the future of the franchise- guys like Archer and Odorizzi are- and holding onto him for 2014 if he’s not pitching well this season doesn’t make any sense.

    @otownraysfan:disqus They couldn’t expect much in return for Niemann (something I’ve written about several times on this site) but they’re not going to hang onto his salary if he doesn’t win their 5th starter job. Indeed, there is no chance Hernandez is back in Tampa Bay in 2014 if he pitches well, but once again, he and Niemann aren’t the future of the franchise and between guys like Archer, Odorizzi, Alex Colome, Felipe Rivero, and the top pitching prospects in the low minors highlighted by Taylor Guerrieri, the Rays look to have plenty of pitching depth and aren’t planning on relying on thirty-something starters in the long-term.

    @disqus_2wj4lV7tRp:disqus Hernandez has really done a pretty good job staying healthy in his career, never going on the DL for an arm-related injury- although for Niemann, you never know when he’ll go down again, which might the biggest reason the Rays should trade him because there’s way too high a probability they get next-to-nothing for the 3 million dollars he’ll make next year. But if Niemann stays healthy and pitches well in spring training, having him as the 5th starter and Hernandez’s electric arm in the bullpen could work just fine. A lot Shields’ innings will be picked up by everyone else maintaining a larger workload- Price hopefully staying healthy all year and going from 211 innings to more like 230, Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore going from 177 innings to more like 190 to 200 themselves, and Cobb being in the rotation all year. That’s 100 innings give-or-take right there, and they hope that Niemann, Hernandez, Odorizzi, and Archer can give them the other 120.

    @disqus_Z34eQBKzzO:disqus Completely agreed. The Rays can’t be too sure what Hernandez will give them, and it may make the most sense to start him in the bullpen to begin the season, see how he’s throwing the ball, and then decide whether it makes more sense for him or Niemann to be in the 5th starter.

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