ST PETERSBURG, FL - APRIL 24: Pitcher Jeff Niemann #34 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Toronto Blue Jays during the game at Tropicana Field on April 24, 2010 in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Rayshave a decision to make soon. A six foot, ten inch decision. Jeff Niemann made his second of four scheduled rehab starts last night. If all goes well he's on pace for a late August return. That would pose an interesting decision for the Rays. With the team pitching as well as they are when do you activate him and where exactly does the big Texan fit in?
As usual the Rays have multiple options to mull over. Let's take a look.
Activate Niemann as soon as he's eligible
This would force the team to designate someone for assignment or option someone to the minors. There's no one on the 25 man roster who is in jeopardy of being designated for Niemann, so that leaves players with options to burn. Burke Badenhop has an option, and is the least important piece of the Rays' bullpen. They could option Badenhop and replace his ground ball skills with those of Alex Cobb. If the team decides to stick with a five man rotation the castoff could land in this role for the rest of the season.
However, it's unlikely the Rays decide to go this route. There are other, more sensible, options to pursue.
Activate him after rosters expand September 1st
This makes the most sense. A team has 30 days from the start of the rehab to activate a pitcher. Niemann's first rehab start was August 8th, meaning the Rays aren't forced to activate him until a week into September, even if he's at full strength. No one has to be sent down or released, making it the logical choice. It's not likely he'd be selected, but if the Rays make the playoffs Niemann would still be eligible for the roster since he was on the disabled list prior to the cutoff date.
That question is easy. The tougher one is where to slot him once he's activated; in the rotation or the bullpen?
Niemann was pitching well before the injury, putting up a 3.38 ERA/3.33 FIP in seven starts. His replacement, Alex Cobb, has also pitched well, and much better as of late. He's currently sitting with a 4.08 ERA/3.29 FIP and has worked seven innings in four straight starts. He's accumulated 1.9 WAR(wins above replacement) in 90 innings, or more than Niemann had in 2010 or 2011. So, who do you take out of the rotation?
How about no one? Instead of relegating one of them to the bullpen the Rays could, and should, go to a six man rotation for the final month of the season. In doing so you can keep James Shields and David Priceon normal rest and skip a start here and there for Matt Moore, Jeremy Hellicksonand Alex Cobb. They're the youngest of the Rays staff and Moore and Cobb are on pace to set career highs in innings pitched. FanGraphs.com's ZiPS projections have Moore throwing 183.3 innings, roughly twenty more than he did in 2011.
Having too many good pitchers is a problem the Rays are lucky to have and one the other contending teams in the American League, especially the Yankees, would love to be sidled with.