BOSTON — The Rays liked what they saw from RHP Jeff Niemann this spring, and they liked what they got from RHP Lance Cormier.
So when it came time Sunday to finally decide the last two spots on their pitching staff, they made Niemann the fifth starter, Cormier the long reliever and Jason Hammel a Colorado Rockie.
The decision between Hammel and Niemann, both out of options, was difficult; manager Joe Maddon called it "our Sophie's choice."
But Niemann, 26, impressed the Rays by improving on what they asked him to — the down angle of his fastball and the command of his breaking ball — and having a higher upside. "The progress that we saw was something that was very encouraging," executive VP Andrew Friedman said.
Niemann, who has made just five big-league appearances (all last season) since being the fourth overall pick of the 2004 draft, got the news after pitching in a minor-league intrasquad game in Port Charlotte.
"I'm real excited; I can't wait to go up there and do my best to get some wins," he said. "To finally be able to break with the big-league team and be part of it from the get-go is something special, and something I'll never forget."
Cormier, 28, signed as a free agent after going 3-3, 4.02 ERA in 45 games for Baltimore. He offers the ability to work several innings at a time, an important element for the bullpen, especially early in the season, and the potential to handle more. Plus he gets ground balls and can get out left-handers.
"I really like his pitches. I like his curveball, I like his cutter — a lot. The fastball is fast enough (89-91 mph) when it's located that it really works well with the other two pitches," Maddon said. "I liked his demeanor; I thought that he handled the whole thing well."
HAMMER TIME: After six years in the Rays organization, and pitching in 73 big-league games over the past three, Hammel, 26, sounded eager for the chance to do more in Colorado.
"I'm definitely appreciative of the opportunity (the Rays) gave me," he said after he, too, pitched in Port Charlotte. "Wish there was more. Seemed like I never really had a solidified spot; I was bouncing back between starting and bullpen. … I want to go somewhere that will use me."
Friedman said the Rockies first expressed interest several weeks ago in Hammel — who was 7-15, 5.90 for the Rays — and it was just a matter of working it out as the Rays made their decisions.
THE OTHER A-ROD: For Hammel, the Rays received RHP Aneury Rodriguez, 21, a hard thrower who was 9-10, 3.74 for Class A Modesto last season and joins Double-A Montgomery.
RAINY DAYS AND MONDAYS: Today's forecast is threatening, to put it kindly, with an 88 percent chance of rain at game time, according to the National Weather Service, temperatures in the high 40s and wind in the 20-25 mph range. "It's not good," Maddon said. Tuesday is an open date.
UPTON UPDATE: CF B.J. Upton said he was close to getting his timing back after a busy Sunday morning in which he batted 13 times, going 4-for-12, including a homer off Andy Sonnanstine, with a walk while shuttling between two minor-league intrasquad games in Port Charlotte. "Just take a couple more days to get on the fastball and I should be okay," he said. Upton, rehabbing from left shoulder surgery, is schedule to play for Class A Charlotte Thursday-Saturday and join the Rays on April 13.
MISCELLANY: Upton, RHP Chad Bradford and OF Fernando Perez were placed on the 15-day disabled list retroactive to March 27, RHP Jason Isringhausen retro to March 31. … The Rays officially reassigned C Michel Hernandez; INFs Adam Kennedy, Ray Olmedo, and Chris Richard; and OFs Ray Sadler and Jon Weber to minor-league camp.
Times staff writer Joe Smith contributed to this report.