The following is not a typo…
The Rays are being carried by their pitching staff, one of the best in baseball.
After 12 games the Rays are 6-6 but it could be a lot worse if not for a team ERA of 3.86 good for 4th in the AL. In 2007 the Rays’ team ERA was 5.33. While the improved defense has ceraintly been a factor, the biggest difference may be the ability to throw strikes, walking 22.2% fewer batters this season. In 2007 the Rays walked 3.6 batters per 9 innings. So far in 2008, the Rays are walking 2.8 per 9 innings, good for 3rd in the AL. And this has been accomplished with staff ace Scott Kazmir on the shelf.
Despite strong early-season performances from Edwin Jackson, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann, the Rays will be forced to make a series of moves that will shake up the pitching staff sometime in May once Kazmir and Matt Garza reclaim their spots in the rotation.
Here is the projected rotation once everybody is healthy…
- Scott Kazmir
- James Shields
- Matt Garza
- Andy Sonnanstine
- Edwin Jackson
That means both Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann are out. If (and that’s a 6’9″ *if*) Niemann continues to pitch as well as he looked yesterday, it will be hard to justify sending him back to Durham. And there is the issue of Hammel’s minor league options. He has none.
The obvious play is for the Rays to trade either Hammel or Jackson. DRays Bay throws out some numbers that show Jackson has been lucky so far, and suggest that the Rays would be better off selling high on Jackson and keeping Hammel. The Rays will also certainly consider service time when deciding whom to trade. Jackson will be arbitration eligible at the end of the season and will be due a big pay raise, especially if he can continue to pitch well.
While we are certain that Andrew Firedman will be working the Blackberry in the next few weeks, a trade is far from a forgone conclusion, especially early in the season. So the question becomes: What do the Rays do with the surplus of pitching if they are unable to find a trade partner?
Keep ’em all, of course.
If the Rays cannot trade Hammel or Jackson, Hammel would have to clear waivers in order to be sent to the minors (not likely). The only other option is to send Hammel to the bullpen. JP Howell made the bullpen as a long reliever out of spring training, but Joe Maddon has not been afraid to use him in shorter stints in meaningful games early in the season. That leaves an opening for Hammel to assume the role of long reliever. The Rays would then have to DFA Scott Dohmann who would be the 8th man in a 7-man bullpen.
That leaves Niemann. The most likely scenario has Niemann heading back to Durham as insurance for the rotation against any further injuries. However, there is a scenario that keeps him a Rays uniform.
During spring training, pitching coach Jim Hickey expressed that he would not be afraid to use Andy Sonnanstine in the bullpen. In fact, he seemed to prefer Sonnanstine in the bullpen over other options…
According to Hickey, it’s rare that [Sonnanstine or Howell] reports soreness in his arm the day after starting, neither takes particularly long to get warmed up, and both can be relied upon to come in and throw strikes even if they haven’t pitched in a few days…”You kind of target those guys,” Hickey said. “You don’t just take anybody and say ‘This guy’s capable of being a relief pitcher.'”
This suggests that Hickey, Madden and Friedman consider Sonnanstine to be a relief pitcher in the long run. If Niemann stayed in the rotation and Sonny was moved to the bullpen, the Rays would have to DFA a second relief pitcher. Anybody have a problem with Gary Glover being pushed out the door? Neither do we.
With or without a trade, here is what the Rays pitching staff could look like at the end of May…
- Hammel (or relief pitcher acquired via trade for Hammel)
If this is how the pitching staff shakes out, it would be our contention that for the first time in the 11 year history of the franchise, the Rays would have 12 major league pitchers on the staff…and our 12th Raysmas wish would come true.