The competition stretched the entirety of spring training, but the Rays finally made their decision, choosing Roberto Hernandez over Jeff Niemann for their fifth starter. On the surface, it was pretty clear why- as we discussed earlier, Hernandez’s sinker and changeup looked as good as ever while Niemann’s fastball was stuck in the mid-80’s, not touching 90 MPH a single time all spring. While Niemann pitched to solid results, Hernandez looked a lot better and looked like a much surer bet to succeed on a consistent basis this season. Things get more interesting, though, when we move beyond what the Rays are doing with Hernandez and get to why the Rays decided to move Niemann to the bullpen. Is a coincidence that the Rays moved Niemann to relief after Jayson Stark of ESPN tweeted this insight from a scout?
Scouts watching Jeff Niemann this month wary of lower velocity but “If they move him to pen he’ll be up a tick or 2 & get his value back up”
— Jayson Stark (@jaysonst) March 27, 2013
From the perspective of maximizing everyone’s value, moving Niemann to the bullpen doesn’t make any sense. Niemann’s fastball might get back into the 90-91 MPH range out of the bullpen, but even with his curveball and changeup playing up in relief he’s not a candidate to dominate hitters even in short stints. Niemann’s value is his ability to throw strikes, keep hitters off-balance, and occasionally be very effective when his mechanics are in sync, and none of that means as much out of the bullpen because a lot of pitchers can do that. Niemann was a solid starting pitcher when healthy, certainly qualified to hold down the Rays’ 5th spot, but out of the bullpen he’s nothing special. Hernandez, on the other hand, could be a late-inning candidate with his mid-90’s sinker and strong changeup, and having him in the bullpen at least to start the year would have set both pitchers up for success. Instead, Niemann is being hung out to dry, being placed into a role where he may be slightly better but won’t have nearly the impact on the team that he had previously. And couldn’t Brandon Gomes or Josh Lueke had filled the role Niemann is about to fill and maybe even been better for a fraction of the cost?
If Niemann wasn’t going to be their fifth starter, the Rays’ best move was to trade him and replace him with Gomes or Lueke, saving themselves the 3 million dollars he’ll make this season, and netting at least a low-level prospect in return. Simply put, the Rays aren’t getting maximum value for all their players at this point by putting Niemann in the bullpen. But the complicating factor is that Niemann’s reduced velocity has made teams wary of acquiring him, and the Rays have been forced to compensate by moving Niemann into relief.
The Rays are in a bind because they know that Niemann isn’t ready to start games for them or anyone right now with his reduced velocity but they know that moving him to the bullpen is a waste of his talent, a waste of money, and might actually hurt the team compared to one of the other relievers they currently have at Triple-A. Their best move may have been to start Niemann on the DL, let him build up his arm strength before making a couple of starts to audition for other teams, and then trading him. But placing Niemann on the DL for say “shoulder soreness” would have raised a substantial red flag with teams thinking about acquiring Niemann and could kill whatever trade value he has left. The only thing the Rays can do is hope that Niemann gets his velocity back out of the bullpen and impresses enough that teams in need of starting pitching will attempt to acquire him.
The good news is that the difference between Niemann and Gomes or Lueke in a middle/long relief role will not be enormous or would at the worst cost the Rays maybe one win the entire season and might actually help them if say Matt Moore gets off to a rough start to the season and Niemann is available to provide length behind him to help the Rays win a couple of games they wouldn’t have otherwise. The monetary hit (up to 2.5 million dollars) is certainly annoying, especially by Rays standards, but not something the Rays can’t absorb. And if the result of this is that Niemann raises his trade value to the point that the Rays get a prospect with some potential in exchange for him, it will all be worth it. It’s just bizarre to see the Rays move Niemann to the bullpen just as much for the sake of his trade value as to help their team win as many games as possible.