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.