When rosters expand to 40 players in September, there is a strong chance that the Tampa Bay Devil Rays will use a six-man rotation. The organization is considering this scenario primarily for the purpose of getting young pitchers Scott Kazmir and James Shields – integral building blocks of the organization's future – more rest. Andrew Friedman, Tampa Bay's Vice President of Baseball Operations, would prefer for Kazmir and Shields to increase their pitches from last season to this season by just 20 percent. But if this scenario does develop, who will the Tampa Bay, expected to call up at least three pitchers to an already large, 13-man pitching staff, choose as its pitcher of choice?
Well, Tampa Bay could always bring up J.P. Howell, who went 1-4 with a Casey Fossum-like 7.36 earned run average in eight big-league starts. His only victory was an impressive outing against the lowly (relatively speaking, most national baseball writers use this term when discussing the Devil Rays) Kansas City Royals. Howell, pitching well of late – three wins and a 2.52 ERA in his last 10 Triple-A starts – has the potential to provide a few quality starts for Tampa Bay over the final month, however. Plus, as is the same for all candidates, September, a month-long audition, will provide the organization with a strong indication of what the soft lefty's status with the team will be headed into spring training next February.
Jae Kuk Ryu, the 6-foot-3 right-hander from Korea who was one of the Devil Rays' most consistent relief pitchers – this side of Al Reyes and pre-suspension Juan Salas – during the first six weeks of the season, is also an option. A few rough outings (the main reason for his 7.33 ERA in 17 appearances), led to him being optioned to Durham – for you know, the whole starting experiment? But Kuk Ryu, who ironically shares the same birthday as I do (5/30), has been inconsistent in a starter's role for the Bulls – 4-3, 4.53 ERA, 57 strikeouts in 12 starts - raising questions about whether he will ever achieve success as a starter at the big-league level.
Jeff Niemann, the 6-foot-9 Texan who was one of the most dominant pitchers in college baseball history during his celebrated career at Rice University, is perhaps the strongest candidate. Former 7-foot NBA player Bryant Reeves, a first-round selection by the Vancouver Grizzlies back in the day, was nicknamed "Big Country." After seeing the 23-year-old Niemann pitch during spring training, I began to apply the same nickname to him.
The Devil Rays' first-round selection in the 2004 draft has been plagued by injuries in his first few seasons as a professional. Most instapundits and talking baseball heads expected the Houston native to be a mainstay in the Devil Rays' starting rotation in less than two years after being drafted, at least by the beginning of 2007. But after tumultuous start to the year, Niemann, on occasion, has shown the tremendous talent that led to one of the largest signing bonuses in franchise history (although it seems like pennies now compared to the bonus given to David Price last week).
In 23 starts, and perhaps surprisingly, less than two trips to the disabled list, Niemann owns an 11-5 record (tied for the team lead in victories) and a misleading 4.00 ERA. Helping his case, he has six wins and 41 strikeouts over his last 10 starts. For those readers who didn't get the old-school Reeves reference we can only remain optimisic that in the future, if a sports writer ever uses a similar analogy when discussing the new "Big Country", Jeff Niemann, the average sports fan will pick up on it right away. Let's just hope that the intimidating right-hander's name, first and foremost, is associated with pitching excellence.
Mitch Talbot, one of the two prospects who were traded to Tampa Bay along with Ben Zobrist in the deal that sent Aubrey Huff, to the Houston Astros last summer, is also a likely candidate. Even though Talbot is struggling through a disappointing season at Triple-A – 4.77 ERA in 28 starts – the 23-year-old right-hander is still among Bulls' team leaders in wins (11) and strikeouts (118). In his favor, Talbot surprisingly has a better WHIP (1.43) than Niemann, and he drew rave reviews from Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon and pitching coach Jim Hickey during his brief stint with the big-league club in spring training.
Even with Howell's experience, my birthday bias towards Kuk Ryu, and Talbot's upside, my pick for the sixth man is ……………………..
"Big Country," Jeff Niemann. Niemann's day has finally come to make his highly anticipated major league debut. Which will make him the second pitcher of the Rice University trio, three former Owls pitcher who were drafted within eight picks of one another in the first round in 2004 to make a start in the major leagues - Philip Humber, a prospect who made his big-league debut with the New York Mets in 2006 (and recently came within two outs of tossing a no-hitter for Triple-A New Orleans) and Tampa Bay farmhand Wade Townsend are the others.
Niemann has more potential to be a frontline starter for the Devil Rays in the future than any of the other candidates, obviously If Howell, Kuk Ryu and Talbot develop to their fullest capabilities, they still profile as pitchers at the back end of a big-league rotation. While Howell might provide the most instant gratification with the possibility of rolling out a streak of consecutive wins, success in a September promotion for Niemann could jump-start an already promising young career. In the process, a call-up could give management an idea about the chances that Niemann will latch onto spot in the back-end of the Tampa Bay rotation for good at some point next season.
Plus, what is there to lose for an organization that is nearly as many games back of the Red Sox for first place in the division than American League home run leader Alex Rodriguez has dingers so far this season. (42 HR, 28 games, a tad bit of a stretch). Still, though, when an owner of a Major League Baseball team refers to his club's record as "unacceptable," it's time to mix things up and make a change. Perhaps Niemann could be that change.
Who do you think should be called up to join the Devil Rays starting rotation in September? Discuss it on our message boards or send and email to RaysDigest Publisher Tyler Hissey @ TylerHissey@gmail.com.