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Tampa Bay Rays likely to choose between Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann for fifth starter

BRADENTON — Carlos Hernandez and Mitch Talbot are headed back to the minors. David Price still appears likely to join them, no matter how he pitches the rest of the spring, for further development.

That leaves Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann for the fifth spot in the Rays rotation, with the other likely ticketed for a long relief role. And though Niemann has put up impressive numbers, Hammel has emerged as the frontrunner to join the rotation.

"Obviously it's looking that way and it may turn out that way, but it's really not finalized," manager Joe Maddon said. "It's not. It truly is not.

"Jeff could easily be a starter; Hammer could easily be the reliever. I like the way it's setting up right now, but we have discussions going back and forth regarding that point exactly — if it were those two, who should start, who should be in the bullpen. So there's a split in regard to that right now."

Hammel starts Wednesday against the Reds as the Rays run each of their regular starters out for a turn. Niemann is slated to work in relief.

Hammel, 26, spent most of last season as the long man in the Rays bullpen. He has a career 4-13, 6.41 record as a starter; 3-2, 4.87 as a reliever. He has a 3.00 ERA in four spring games (12 innings), impressing Maddon by addressing issues such as fastball command, consistency in his delivery and mound composure.

Niemann, 26, has been a starter throughout his minor-league career, but the Rays are intrigued about a bullpen role, with the idea he could eventually become a late-inning reliever given his intimidating presence, down-angle fastball and above-average breaking ball. He is 2-0 with a 0.82 ERA this spring, allowing only five hits in 11 innings (for a .135 average).

"I'd say in another week or so we'll have a pretty good idea what we want to do," Maddon said.

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com.

Tampa Bay Rays likely to choose between Jason Hammel, Jeff Niemann for fifth starter 03/16/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 17, 2009 6:14am]
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