ST PETERSBURG, FL - Pitcher Jeff Niemann #34 of the Tampa Bay Rays pitches against the Texas Rangers during the game at Tropicana Field. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
The Tampa Bay Rays decided on Jeff Niemann as their fifth starter over Wade Davis.
The Tampa Bay Rays just lit a cigar with a starting pitcher. Literally. The police are investigating and everything. They literally set a pitcher, a human being, on fire to light their cigar. What else are they going to do with them, right? Might as well get some use out of them. Also, the cigar was a Swisher Sweet they found behind the kettle-corn concession. The Rays can only play the role of heartless fat cat to a point.
Which is to say, the Rays have a surplus of starting pitching. There weren't going to have problems filling their five-man rotation; they were going to have problems excluding someone. And we have news directly from the guy who made the decision:
Just told Jeff he will be in the rotation and Wade in the pen. 1 of the most difficult decisions I've had here. We think so highly of both.— Joe Maddon (@RaysJoeMaddon) March 27, 2012
Wade would be Wade Davis, a 25-year-old right-hander who was widely regarded as one of the better pitching prospects in baseball when he came up in 2009, and who has done okay for the Rays since then.
Jeff would be Jeff Niemann, a 29-year-old right-hander who has done okay for the Rays since coming up for them in … wait, 29? When did he get so old? Jake Peavy and Carlos Zambrano are both just over a year older. Weird.
The Rays went with Niemann, who made 23 starts for them last year, putting up a very nice strikeout-to-walk ratio of almost three to one, though that only translated to a 4.06 ERA, which wasn't especially good for a pitcher at Tropicana Field in 2011. And Davis had similar strikeout/walk rates in the minors -- considering that Davis is younger, he might have been the better bet.
Also a consideration is that the Rays signed Davis to a mini-Matt Moore contract, with all sorts of lucrative options that would help the Rays in the future if Davis panned out. He's signed for close to $9 million for the next three years, with $25 million in options over the following three years. If Davis turned into a star -- heck, if he turned into Gavin Floyd -- that would be an amazingly team-friendly contract. So the Rays had an interest in Davis becoming a quality starter, and it didn't have to do with this year alone.
But that wasn't the question. The question wasn't who would be the better pitcher in 2015. It was who would be the better pitcher in 2012, when the Rays know that they should be in a pennant race with a team that's built to win now in a tough division. It's hard to argue against either of the pitchers, but it's not difficult to argue for either of them. Niemann has been homer-prone, but his control pairs with his strikeout stuff nicely. There wasn't an incorrect decision to be made.
And the folks at seem to concur that Davis has the most to benefit from a move to the bullpen. His velocity could get back to what it was in the minors, and his control hiccups could probably be hid better in the bullpen. If he never makes it back to the rotation, he's still reasonably priced for a setup man. This could work.
There wasn't really a way to mess this up. And if the Rays find themselves in need of a replacement starter in May or June, they'll just head to the vending machine and get another one. Even better, they'll just go to Costco and buy a palette of them, keeping a bunch in the freezer just in case. It's a nice problem to have.