In Jeff Niemann's five innings pitched Sunday against the Blue Jays, the 6-foot-9 right-hander showed a marked improvement over his last three starts since coming off the disabled list on August 25. But with the regular season winding down and, barring an epic disaster, the playoffs upcoming, does he have enough time to make his case for the postseason roster?
After his disastrous start on Sept. 6 against Boston - 1.2 IP, 4H, 6 ER, 2 HR - I was ready to send Niemann to the glue factory, but Rays manager Joe Maddon showed no hesitation in scheduling Niemann for his next start, which was yesterday in Toronto. Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey insisted he was perfectly healthy. Although when you looked at his performances after missing two weeks with a shoulder strain, it made you wonder what else could be wrong if he was indeed healthy, and if maybe he had come back too soon.
Niemann pitched 3.1 innings in his return from the disabled list against the Angels giving up eight hits and 10 earned runs, including a grand slam to Mike Napoli, while walking three and striking out two. His second start off the DL against the Blue Jays, Niemann pitched five innings, giving up seven hits and seven earned runs - due in part to Lance Cormier's less than stellar relief appearance (1 IP, 2 HR). Niemann had at least lasted longer in the loss to the Jays so even though his command was clearly still off, you felt that possible fatigue might be fading at least.
Then came the outing against Boston and any signs of progress were shot.
It seemed that if the Rays wanted to shut Niemann down for the season, it wouldn't have been a big blow because they could have slipped Jeremy Hellickson back into the rotation for the remainder of the season and waited until the postseason to put him into the bullpen. Hellickson was 3-0 in his first three starts and lost his fourth, allowing six earned runs in 26.1 innings pitched.
In 2008, David Price was used mostly in a relief role but made his first major league start in late September against the Orioles and went back to a relief role. So the precedent was there, but the Rays appear to be sticking with Niemann in the rotation for the remainder of the regular season.
But you have to wonder if the Rays can afford to have Niemann and his slow progress in the rotation at this point in the season, only a half game back of the first place Yankees with seven games of the last 20 games against New York.
Given how Niemann has performed as of late, it doesn't seem likely that he would make the postseason rotation. You have to figure Price, Matt Garza and James Shields are locks. That leaves one spot between Niemann and Davis, who went on the disabled list around the same time and have had opposite results coming off it. Davis has been 3-0 in his four starts since returning from the DL on August 25, getting up to 103 and 108 pitches in his last two starts.
Earlier in the season it appeared the Rays would have a tough decision ahead of them about the postseason rotation - like they did in 2008 when 14-game winner Edwin Jackson was left off - but with the way things have gone lately, it looks as though Niemann is progressing too slowly in comparison to Davis to get the nod as a postseason starter.