With under a week before the season is slated to begin, there is really only one major question surrounding the Rays at this point – who will be the fifth starter? What had originally been a battle between four pitchers has come down to a race between Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez, with the other pitcher being relegated to long relief and the occasional spot start.
On the surface, this seems like a simple question when based upon their statistics over the course of the Spring. Even though Niemann had a 1-2 record, he had an ERA of 2.92 and had a 4.25 strikeout to walk rate. Hernandez, meanwhile, went 0-2 with a 5.33 ERA and a strikeout to walk ratio that was just over two. It seems fairly obvious that Niemann should end up as the fifth starter based upon the numbers.
Yet, there is far more to the question than that. Niemann has battled injuries over the past two seasons, while Hernandez has not missed significant time due to an injury since 2008. There are also concerns about Niemann’s velocity, or, more specifically, the lack thereof. His fastball velocity had been dropping off over the previous few years, going from 92.04MPH in 2010 to 90.34 MPH in 2012. However, for most of the spring, Niemann had been throwing in the mid 80’s, occasionally topping out at 87 or 88 MPH, which has also concerned teams that had been scouting him for a potential trade. It may be possible that the decreased velocity during camp is due to his shoulder issues last year have not fully healed; likewise, it could be a sign that Niemann is not quite the same pitcher he had been. A move to the bullpen may allow Niemann to increase his velocity close to his previous marks.
Hernandez, meanwhile, is an extreme groundball pitcher, averaging 1.4 groundballs per flyball over his career. With the Rays focus on defense and positioning, Hernandez’s ability to generate groundballs at such a high rate may be an advantage. In fact, the Rays shifts may have inadvertently played a part in Hernandez’s rough spring, as the Rays did not employ their traditional shifts. If they had, perhaps his overall numbers would look better.
In the end, whoever begins the season as the fifth starter may not be in that position by the end of the year. Injuries or ineffectiveness may cause one, or both to lose the spot, particularly if Chris Archer starts off hot in Durham. However, regardless of how the rotation looks a the end of the season, it likely makes the most sense to have Hernandez begin the year as the Rays fifth starter, as his repertoire appears to fit what the Rays are looking for from their starters. Meanwhile, by relegating Niemann to the bullpen, they may be able to boost his trade value if a team is searching for a starting pitcher.
It may be in the Rays best interests to make Roberto Hernandez the fifth starter, not just for his groundball tendencies, but to see if they can build the market for Jeff Niemann back up. Yet whoever they choose may just be keeping the seat warm until Archer arrives the middle of the season.