Spring training is drawing to a close, and the Rays’ Opening Day roster is set. Jose Lobaton was named the backup catcher over Chris Gimenez and Jamey Wright was awarded the final bullpen spot over Brandon Gomes, leaving the Rays with the 25 players that will begin the season on their roster. Appearing among those 25 are Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez, but one critical decision remains for the Rays: which of them will be the 5th starter and who will head to the bullpen?
Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez are both very talented pitchers. However, with their ability as always come inconsistency and the Rays know that they can’t completely rely on either of them. For Niemann, his fatal flaw has always been injuries. Niemann threw 180.2 innings pitched in 2009 on his way to a 4th-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year award and has seen his innings total decline every year since including just 38 innings in 2012 as he dealt with a broken bone in his leg from a line drive and then shoulder soreness. The chances of Niemann tossing 200 innings are pretty much negligible, and his next injury could happen at any time. But when Niemann has been on the field, his overall body of work has been much better than Hernandez, with his career ERA coming in at 4.08.
Hernandez has two seasons under his belt much better than anyone could possibly expect from Niemann: a 2007 season where he went 19-8 with a 3.06 ERA in 215 innings pitched and a 2010 season that saw him go 13-14 with a 3.77 ERA in 210.1 IP. But beyond those two seasons, Hernandez has been terrible in the other five, putting up a ghastly 5.64 ERA. The reason has been that he has never been able to strike hitters out on any sort of consistent basis, managing just 5.4 strikeouts per 9 innings in his career, and pairing that with far from pinpoint control has left him with a 1.55-to-1 strikeout to walk ratio, the 3rd-worst in baseball since 2007 minimum 700 innings. He does an excellent job forcing groundballs, managing a groundball rate of 58.4% that ranked third in baseball over that same span, but he’s extremely dependent on his defense and his inability to put hitters away has led to far too much hard contact than a pitcher with his stuff should allow. Having a stronger infield defense behind him will certainly help Hernandez- but if he continues pitching as poorly as he has for most of his career, it won’t make a difference.
This spring, Hernandez outperformed Niemann up until their final appearances, when Hernandez completely fell apart, allowing a scary 9 runs on 11 hits, while Niemann tossed 6 shutout innings. But how much should that matter when there has been reason for optimism with Hernandez’s repertoire while Niemann has only elicited concern? Hernandez has wowed the Rays this spring by how good his changeup has been as a second offering behind his great sinker. Niemann, meanwhile, has kept everyone on their toes as his fastball has stayed in the mid-80′s before finally getting up to 88-89 MPH in his final start. On the other hand, if Niemann is the better, more consistent pitcher, why should he be squeezed out of a rotation spot if he’s pitching well only because he might get injured later?
One major factor to consider is that the Rays aren’t just thinking about who would be best in a starting role, but also who would work best in relief. That would clearly be Hernandez, whose high dependence on his fastball would not be as much of a concern. Wade Davis played exactly the same type of role last season that Hernandez would play in the bullpen, and considering Hernandez’s electric stuff, the results could be very much the same with Hernandez evolving into a reliever that could do everything from long relief to setting up for Fernando Rodney. For Niemann, his fastball might gain some velocity, but his stuff can hardly be described as “explosive” and he’s much more valuable out of the rotation as a pitcher who won’t rack up the strikeouts and will allow a few too many home runs but will limit the walks and force weak contact. Hernandez also has 31 major league games in relief under his belt (albeit all in 2006) while Niemann has just 5.
The decision that the Rays are about to make isn’t set in stone for the entire season. If Niemann gets the nod and then gets injured, Hernandez can step right in, while if Hernandez pitches poorly, Niemann could replace him. There has been some talk of Niemann getting traded, but that isn’t happening right now with teams scared up by his reduced velocity, and the Rays are set to keep both of them to start the year. And because of that, I believe that Niemann has to be the Rays’ choice for their 5th starter. He may get injured, and if he does Hernandez will step right in, but while he’s healthy he has more value as a starter and the ability to succeed in such a role. It’s nice that Hernandez is a better bet to eat innings for the Rays, but the Rays have always prioritized quality over quantity, and between Niemann, Hernandez, and Chris Archer, those innings will be filled out fine anyway. Niemann starting in the rotation sets both pitchers up for success while giving the Rays a built-in backup plan if Niemann goes down again.
Jeff Niemann has his moments where he’s locked in mentally and mechanically and hitters don’t stand a chance. From June 20th to August 16th of 2011, Niemann carried the Rays, going 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA and a 61-16 strikeout to walk ratio, and while he dropped off the rest of the season, it shows just how good he can be when healthy. Even when Hernandez was successful, he was always surviving by the skin of his teeth as he was unable to overpower hitters in the slightest and maybe out of the bullpen he could finally be more than that. In their 5th starter spot, the Rays are expecting to receive a standard of pitching far above what other teams would tolerate from the final pieces in their rotations and between Niemann, Hernandez, and Archer, they will be getting just that. But before they get ahead of themselves anticipating Niemann getting injured or Hernandez suddenly taking a huge step forward as a starting pitcher, they should simply give Niemann the ball and see we can do one more time.