Either Wade Davis or Jeff Niemann appears likely to wind up in bullpen thanks to Tampa Bay Rays' pitching surplus

Jeff Niemann, who has twice pitched in relief during the regular season and once in the playoffs, says, essentially, that he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.
Jeff Niemann, who has twice pitched in relief during the regular season and once in the playoffs, says, essentially, that he’ll cross that bridge when he comes to it.
Published Feb. 20, 2012

PORT CHARLOTTE — Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman and manager Joe Maddon will have most of the answers this afternoon when they hold their annual spring-training-opening media conference.

The key to the shortstop competition between Reid Brignac and Sean Rodriguez will be their hitting. … The batting order will be sorted out over the course of the spring, with the No. 2 spot one of the biggest unknowns. … Jose Lobaton, by being out of options, might have a slight edge over Robinson Chirinos in the battle to share time behind the plate with Jose Molina.

But the one question neither they nor anyone else can answer yet is what the Rays will do with their surplus of starting pitchers.

If all are healthy and there (still) isn't a trade by opening day, they'll have eight legitimate candidates for the five-man rotation.

Three of the spots are claimed by James Shields, David Price and Jeremy Hellickson, and a fourth was cleared for rookie phenom Matt Moore, whose new contract eliminated any financial incentive to keep him in the minors. Two others, Alex Cobb and Alex Torres, are likely headed back to Triple A. And though the Rays used a six-man rotation in mid-season last year, there are no plans to do so from the start or for an extended period.

All of which leaves Wade Davis and Jeff Niemann battling for one spot.

And the other apparently headed to the bullpen.

Davis, 26, is adamant that he doesn't want to go.

"I'm a starter," he said. "I don't see any reason for me to be in the bullpen. I understand they've got to do certain things, but we'll see. … I definitely want to be a starter and stay a starter forever. And that'll be my mentality."

Davis said there haven't been any conversations — yet, anyway — with anyone from the Rays about possibly ending up in the bullpen. And if he is sent that way, he might end up approaching them, though he wouldn't have much leverage to force a trade.

"If it ever did come to that, it's something we'd talk about then," he said.

Niemann, 28, takes a more open stance.

"Right now, I think we'll just deal with that when we have to," he said. "I'm just looking forward to going out there and building up (innings) the way we normally do it and see how things play out. It's just an unknown, a definite unknown."

Management's theory is that unless there's a reason not to, it's better off having as much starting depth, and quality depth, as it can. In each of their four winning seasons, the Rays have used at least seven starters, and that has been with relatively good, even great, health. So it's quite likely over the six-month season that both Davis and Niemann — plus Cobb and even Torres — will start meaningful games.

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But, initially, one may be relegated to the bullpen, and given the depth the Rays have there with Kyle Farnsworth, Joel Peralta and free agent addition Fernando Rodney, potentially limited to middle or long relief.

Neither has spent much time in the pen.

Niemann, since joining the rotation in 2009, has made two regular-season appearances and one in the 2010 playoffs. Davis has started all of his 202 regular-season games as a professional, though he worked twice from the bullpen — and looked good doing so — in last year's playoffs when Farnsworth was hurt.

Niemann (11-7, 4.06 last season) said it would take some adjustments, but he doesn't think his warmup routine would be a hindrance. "It would be different, but I think at the same time I could do it," he said.

Davis doesn't even want to think about. He said he worked out harder and more often this winter, his arm strength is up considerably from last year (when he was 11-10, 4.45), and he is determined to have a solid season — in the rotation.

"Right now everything I'm doing is to get ready to throw all year long and into the postseason — I want to throw 230 innings," he said. "I'm going to go out this spring and have a great spring. I have a whole different mentality and I'm physically better and stronger."

Marc Topkin can be reached at