ST. PETERSBURG — As difficult as the decision supposedly was, the Rays' reasons for picking Roberto Hernandez to fill out their rotation, and then slotting him third, sounded pretty straightforward.
Simply, they think he can pitch better, and pitch more, than Jeff Niemann, who, while disappointed, will work out of the bullpen in long relief and continue to work on increasing velocity.
Though Hernandez's spring 5.33 ERA didn't look good — and he is 33-51, 5.06 over the past five seasons with Cleveland — Rays manager Joe Maddon said they liked a lot of what they saw.
"What he's shown is he's getting close, stuff-wise, to what he had been several years ago when he almost won a Cy Young (in 2007)," Maddon said. "The velocity's been good. The movement on the pitches has been good. The changeup has been outstanding. Slider's been good. Everything's been good. The ball's been on the ground. Pretty big, strong guy that you think can suck up some innings. So all those things."
The potential to log innings was a big part of the appeal and also the main reason Hernandez was dropped into the third slot, providing some cushion for the bullpen between No. 2 starter Jeremy Hellickson and No. 4 Matt Moore, who haven't done as well working deep into games. David Price is the ace and Alex Cobb the No. 5, the order set based on matchups through the first month.
Also enticing, Maddon said, is having Hernandez burying his sinker with the Rays' smooth-fielding — and properly positioned — infielders behind him.
"We think it could be kind of interesting to see that in a positive way," Maddon said. "And I believe he's going to keep getting better, too. Get him out there consistently and getting his confidence going and getting him used to being here, I think all that stuff's going to matter."
Hernandez, 32, said he was "very, very happy" with the decision. Having missed most of last season after being arrested on identity fraud issues in the Dominican Republic, the former Fausto Carmona signed a one-year deal for $3.25 million with the hopes of winning a spot in the rotation and re-establishing himself. He will be the first free agent signee to start for the Rays since Hideo Nomo in July 2005.
"I came here to work hard," Hernandez said. "I feel very close. I want to have the same year I had in 2007 (19-8, 3.06). I feel great. This is a good spot for me."
Niemann, 30, was disappointed and a bit frustrated with the decision after a strong spring (2.92 ERA) following a lost 2012 season marred by a broken leg and then shoulder inflammation.
"I felt like we presented a pretty good case, and you can look at my past and know what we're capable of doing," Niemann said. "This spring, we just did what we could, and the chips fell where they fell. I couldn't have done anything else to put myself in a better spot. It's just where we are."
Though Niemann pitched effectively, and at times impressively, this spring, he still showed effects of the shoulder issues that sidelined him at the end of last season as his fastball was clocked mostly at 86-87 mph, a few ticks below his usual velocity.
"We think he needs to continue to build up some arm strength," Maddon said.
"Pitched really well. Everything was in good order. We're a little bit … I don't want to say concerned, but we believe there's more in there velocity-wise. If we give him more time, you're eventually going to see that come back to him. That was it."
As a result, Niemann, who makes $3 million, will be of limited use out of the bullpen. He will be used only when he has ample time to warm up, to start an inning and with appropriate rest between appearances.
Maddon said they still consider him a starter, a potentially very good one, and "more of a starter" than Wade Davis, who last year was moved to the bullpen after, ironically, losing out to Niemann for the last spot. But Maddon also said there was no set time frame in which Hernandez would be evaluated and changes considered.
"That has not even been discussed one time," he said.
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com.