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With Niemann out, what to do?

UPDATE, 3:20: Hearing that Lueke is the choice to join the bullpen tonight.

BREAKING: The loss of starter Jeff Niemann for at least 4-6 weeks, and potentially several months, due to small fracture of his right leg is obviously a major loss for the Rays. Even more so because they felt he was on the verge of one of those runs where he pitches very well for a stretch of starts.

So what do the Rays do to replace him?

Before they fill his spot in the rotation, which doesn't come up again until Saturday, they will bolster their bullpen.

The relievers worked eight innings in his absence on Monday, and though manager Joe Maddon, by design, only extended two of them - Cesar Ramos threw 57 pitches over three innings, Wade Davis 31 over two - they still are a bit shorthanded.

Brandon Gomes, who was sent down on May 6, would seem the most likely candidate - the normal 10-day "waiting period" for recall is waived when there is an injury - to step in tonight.

Gomes has pitched twice, and well, since going back down, posting three scoreless innings, with one hit and one walk. And, more importantly, he didn't pitch Monday so he is fresh. Another option is Josh Lueke, who started the season with the Rays and struggled, and hasn't done much better since: 0-2, 8.10 in 11 games, allowing 19 hits and seven walks in 13 1/3 innings, with hitters averaging .339.

Dane De La Rosa, another candidate, worked 2 1/3 innings Monday, and threw 38 pitches, so he is not. (And that may have been by design as word travels quickly when there is an injury at the big-league level and the Triple-A staff may have gotten orders, in-game, not to use Gomes.)

Once the Rays get the bullpen sorted out, they will have to fill out the starting staff.

And also consider, they could make one move to cover Saturday's start, then regroup because with an off-day next week, they could skip that spot and not need a fifth starter again until May 29.

The biggest decision will be whether to move Wade Davis back into the rotation. He was, and still considers himself, a starter, moved to the pen near the end of spring training when the Rays decided rookie Matt Moore was in the rotation and Niemann "won" the final spot over Davis.

But there are (at least) two issues to consider:

One is how well/quickly Davis could transition back to being a starter. He hasn't worked more than three innings this season, and has thrown more than 32 pitches only twice - 41, in 3 IP, on April 13, and 53, in 2 IP, on May 6. But obviously he has done it before and the Rays could send him out Saturday on a strict limit of 60 or 75 pitches and take their chances.

The other is whether they need him more in the bullpen. Davis has done well, not necessarily great, in the pen - a 2.04 ERA in 12 appearances, primarily in long and middle relief situations. But the Rays value his contributions to the bullpen, riding the unexpected dominance of Fernando Rodney in the absence of injured Kyle Farnsworth, and see him growing into a more significant role.

If the Rays decide to keep Davis in the bullpen, the two leading options from their Triple-A team are RHPs Alex Cobb and Chris Archer. (LHP Alex Torres, who would have been the third option, is a mess down there, dropped from the rotation after going 1-3, 10.38 in his first five starts, allowing 19 hits and 21 walks in 17 1/3 innings.)

Cobb, 24, certainly has more experience, having gone 3-2, 3.42 in nine starts last year, before his season ended due to August surgery to remove a blood clot and part of a rib. He has been a bit inconsistent for the Bulls this far, with a couple of ugly outings, but pitched well last night, working five shutout innings (though throwing 99 pitches). He has allowed 44 hits and 18 walks in 41 1/3 innings, but also struck out 44.

Archer, 23, has no big-league experience, and not much at Triple-A, but has been pitching extremely well, 2-0, 2.00 over his last three starts, including six solid innings on Saturday. He was acquired in the Matt Garza trade with the Cubs.

Both Cobb and Archer would be available on full rest to start in Niemann's spot on Saturday, at the Trop against the Braves.

Another issue is how long they think Niemann will be out. Fractures like this can heal in less than a month, but his size and weight (6-9, 285) and certainly factors in how quickly he recovers, and he would have to work back into pitching shape and form (which for him is tricky mechanically given all the moving parts), and likely make at least a few minor-league starts. So while the optimistic return could be late June, it's also possible that he's out after the All-Star break and even late July.

One further thought: Niemann's absence puts more importance on Moore getting himself straightened out. Not only do the Rays need him to pitch well in the majors, but they will have already used their top option to replace him in Niemann's spot.




[Last modified: Thursday, June 14, 2012 12:41am]


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