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Four pitchers bring different strengths, weaknesses in battle for Tampa Bay Rays' last two openings

FORT MYERS

The men were to gather around a conference room table, where they were asked to bring nothing but opinions. This is the way a ballclub is assembled. With a manager, a coaching staff and a front office debating all that they have seen. As tasks go, this one seems easy enough. You take the best, and leave the rest. I mean, what's so difficult about that? Except too many answers start to unravel with the same beginning to a simple question. What if … The Rays brass met at the Charlotte Sports Park on Monday evening to come to some consensus on the final shape of the roster. In reality, most of the work is already done. You win an American League pennant with a bunch of kids, and there's not a whole lot of overhaul that needs to be done. And so we arrive today with spots for one starter and one reliever on the 12-man pitching staff. And there are four pitchers trying to nail down one of those two jobs. Jason Isringhausen and Lance Cormier are candidates in the bullpen, while Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann could fill either role. The problem is Cormier, Hammel and Niemann cannot be sent to the minors without clearing waivers, and the Rays have an understanding with Isringhausen that he will be released rather than pitch in the minors. In other words, the pitchers who don't make the team are not likely to stay in the organization.

"You're talking about two guys like Hammel and Niemann, both out of options, and you have to look at who between the two do you think has plateaued and maybe keep the one that has not," manager Joe Maddon said. "You've seen these two guys, and if you had to sit and evaluate them, it is damn close."

A couple of years ago, this wouldn't have been much of a debate. Back then, the Rays were investing more in the future than the present. They would have taken the younger starting pitchers — Niemann and Hammel — without any remorse or regret.

These days, the Rays are too good to cheat the present. And they are too poor to ignore the future. Which leads to the debate they had Monday evening.

Someone might say Niemann is the least accomplished of the four pitchers. He is already 26, has yet to show much consistency and has never grabbed a job with both hands. So Niemann is out, except …

What if he becomes a star in three years?

Of all the people in the conversation, Niemann is the only one with that kind of potential. If he ever does put it all together, he could make the Rays regret that move for years to come.

Someone might say Isringhausen, 36, still needs some fine-tuning after last season's elbow surgery. That his best years are behind him, and it's still too soon to know whether his arm will hold up. So Isringhausen is out, except …

What if Troy Percival goes down?

The Rays closer says he is completely healed after offseason back surgery, and he is looking better than he has in years. But Percival is 39, and his recent medical history is not encouraging. The idea of having Isringhausen, with his 293 saves, around for the late innings has its appeal.

Someone might say Hammel, 26, and Cormier, 28, are caught in between. They have neither Isringhausen's extensive past nor Niemann's possible future. Hammel has struggled as a starter (4-13 with a 6.41 ERA and less than five innings per start), and Cormier is with his fourth big-league team in five seasons. So Hammel and Cormier are out, except …

What if the Rays find themselves without a long reliever?

If Isringhausen is in the bullpen, then no one is slotted to pick up the slack when a starter leaves the game early. You might get away with using Joe Nelson or J.P. Howell for extended innings, but that would take them out of their normal roles and probably make them unavailable for a couple of days.

In the end, there is no obvious solution, let alone a perfect one. No matter how they maneuver, the Rays are likely to lose a pitcher they would prefer to keep as an insurance policy.

They could buy themselves some time if they persuaded Isringhausen to remain in minor-league camp for a couple of weeks to refine his game. But agent Dan Horwits said that is not likely to happen because he is confident Isringhausen will get a major-league offer if the Rays release him.

Likewise, the Rays could clear some room by trading Hammel or Niemann for a prospect. The problem is this is the worst possible time to trade Niemann. Because he is out of minor-league options and because he has not yet proven himself in the big leagues, the Rays have no leverage in trade discussions.

So who ends up on the roster?

My guess would be Cormier and Niemann, a mix of today and tomorrow. Cormier would be the best solution in the bullpen for April, and Niemann has the best potential for dividends down the line. That would mean trading Hammel and, if you can't persuade Isringhausen to be patient, cutting him loose, too.

It might hurt, but it would solve all of Tampa Bay's pitching problems.

That is, until Chad Bradford is healthy and David Price is ready to come up.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Jason
Isringhausen

lance
cormier

jeff
niemann

Jason
hammel

Four pitchers bring different strengths, weaknesses in battle for Tampa Bay Rays' last two openings 03/30/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 1, 2009 8:54am]

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