Pitching changes coming for the Rays

Steve Nesius / AP

As Rays Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman and Rays Manager Joe Maddon sit in the conference room of the third floor of Tropicana Field today for the pre-draft Media lunch, they just seem to stare at the huge clock on the wall as it tick-tocks along. Both are in that room to try and put some future logic into the transactions and roster tweaks to make this team take that next step once they hit the .500 plateau again this season. Decisions must be made, either for the good or bad of the team to be able to contend later this year for their second shot at playoff gold. And each of the decision they will have to make will effect this team in some way.

Neither man wants to make these decisions. It would be so much easier if the rosters could expand to 30 players right now instead  September 1st. Staying within that 25-man limit when you have 9 players currently sitting around the training table seeking some sort of medical treatment or advice.. With the influx of these untimely injuries, and some lingering mechanical situations with some of the Rays players’,the season is slowly slipping away from them.

Right now they do not have the best 25 horse to pull the Rays wagon. That might be the worst part of it all. They know they have a solid team that can go head-to-head with anyone in the league, but small setbacks have not only stretched the minor league farm system, but also some of the fan faithful patience. Key players in the minors have either gone lame (Hellickson), or have been as inconsistent (Davis) as some of the Rays current pitchers.

The first problem that might be coming fast on the horizon actually might have fixed itself a bit when both Jeff Niemann and Andy Sonnanstine had great outing this week to take some pressure off the coaching staff and Friedman to make a decision on the two hurlers. Sonnanstine still might be the guy on the bubble, but if he holds to the form he is showing now, the decision might be  a closely guarded secret of the third floor.  Just like Spring Training in 2009, Niemann is the guy who has pulled ahead of his rival with a dramatic game last night that surely set him up for a long term “tryout”, or at least until the Trade Deadline in August.

Niemann put up a 2-hit complete game shutout up last night against the Kansas City Royals that easily the best pitching performance of his career.  He hit the 100 pitch plateau with a swinging strike by the Royals Bill Butler. What is more amazing is the fact that Niemann has now had 1-walk or less in every game since May 18th. A total of 3 walks in 4 games is a great indicator that he might just have found his rhythm with the Rays finally. This is the kind of pitcher the team envisioned in that last week of Spring Training. He might have taken a few games to warm-up, but he is getting hotter and hotter with every start.  

                Steve Nesius / AP

This might be the worst decision they will have to make in 2009. Both pitchers have to be sweating bullets knowing they have given their all for the Rays this season. But with Rays veteran starter Scott Kazmir maybe only a month away from manning the hill for the Rays, it is more believable that one of these two guys will take the fall when Kazmir is reinstated. For all the heat the Rays took for even sending rookie pitcher David Price down ( I agreed with it) they are now going to face that same volume of voices if they even attempt to pop him back to Durham until September. It is considered a non-issue by most of the people in the blue seats that Price is an extreme up-grade to either of these hurlers right now. 

So it might take the  clever mind and crafty talents of Friedman to find a good trade partner to take some of the stress off both the duo and the Rays organization by maybe seeing if the San Diego Padres still have a need or want for either of the two come All-Star break time. You have to consider by that juncture in time, the Jake Peavy situation out west might have more clarity, and they also might have a better understanding of what pieces they have in their system that could entice the Rays. I do not know why, but it seems more logical for the pair to be considered by a National League team than anywhere in the American League.  So this is going to be high on the agenda of both men here in the near future.

Both pitchers have had their share of pitfalls and triumphs in 2009. But right now you have to give the edge to the Tall Texan based on his past 4 starts and his upside right now for the Rays. It really is a different animal to see the ball coming in from a downward angle of a 6 foot 9 inches pitcher. Sonnanstine did not win the race on height (6′ 3″), but this decision might have more basis on pure pitching performance than heart and want right now. 

          Steve Nesius / AP

Right now a few facts are starting to point to Niemann as the guy who might end up having a leg up on the decision making process. So far the Rays won 6 of the last 8 of Niemann’s starts and are 6-4 when he takes the mound. This is the best record of any of the five starters for the Rays right now.  Right now, after last nights brilliant performance, Niemann has the most wins on the Rays staff.  Over his last four starts he has pitched to a 2.86 ERA.  And he has been a bit of a road warrior for the team, starting 7 of his 10 starts on the road and coming back with a 3-1 record with 4.11 road ERA.  And to add some offensive support, the team has scored 40 runs in his last 5 starts.

His last start was a bit of a bummer for Niemann as he only got to throw 3 innings in Cleveland before the game went into a rain delay. Even though he took the loss for the start, he did perform great against the hot hitting Indian offense. His only run given up was scored on a groundout by Victor Martinez. His strikeout-to-walk ratio has gotten better with each start, but in the last 5 games he has posted 23 strikeouts, including a career-high 9 in last night’s game. The statistics are showing his confidence and his belief in the Rays way of pitching has shown on the mound. With almost no runner on base last night, Niemann looked in control both from the stretch and the wind-up. He might finally feel comfortable in his Rays skin.

As for his counterpart Sonnanstine, until Tuesday night’s game, Sonny has looked a bit consistent in a bad way on the mound. But like Niemann, Sonnanstine has continued to cut down on his walks in his last outing surrendering none to the Royals.  The Rays did go 4-2 in his May starts despite a 7.58 ERA. He has received the largest run support of any starter this season for the Rays.  If Sonnanstine had enough innings to qualify, his ERA (7.66) and .340 opponents batting average would be the worst in the majors for a starter.  But then again, he has been behind the eight ball a few times for the Rays this season. He was the lucky, or unlucky pitcher on the mound for the line-up fiasco game against the Cleveland Indians at home.

In that contest, he had to bat in the 3-hole after Evan Longoria and Ben Zobrist were both inserted into the third base position for the game. Because the Rays fielded Zobrist for the first part of the inning, Longoria was disqualified from the Designated Hitter spot, so the Rays lost that AL advantage for the game.   Showing some true grit and conforming perfectly for the situation, Sonnanstine went 1-3 with a RBI-double.  According to the Elias Bureau,in that game he became the first Rays pitcher to bat in an AL home game, and the first to bat at Tropicana Field.  He also threw 5.2 innings that day to post his third win of the season for the team.

Maddon and Friedman will
confer with Rays Pitching Coach Jim Hickey closely on both pitchers before maybe coming up with a solid decision on who might have the longest shelf life for the Rays. Considering that Niemann is in his rookie campaign with the Rays, and Sonny has had three years to ply his trade, both recently have made strides to have either of them stay with the team. Both pitchers have also been a huge part of the resurgence in the Rays since their 4 game slide in Cleveland. Niemann was not only defeated by the Indians, but robbed by the elements of putting up better numbers. In that series, Sonnanstine ran against his arch nemesis, Ben Francisco, who is now 8 for 9 lifetime against him with 4 homers in his last 4 at bats against him.

  Steve Nesius / AP

But we are done with Cleveland this season, so Sonnanstine can focus on other matters for the team. But the upcoming decision could also be made easier if a member of the Bullpen goes down, or if Maddon can see him as a long reliever for the team. That position is currently held by Lance Cormier, who has done an awesome job in that role. But the transition from starter to reliever can take some time and the meetings about Sonny might focus on the fact he might have trouble adjusting to a unconventional and limited pitching role.

But the deciding fact might just be as simple as this fact obtained from the Elias Bureau about Niemann’s effort. Last night was the first time in 20 years that a rookie pitcher threw a complete game shutout against the Royals allowing two or few hits against them.  Right now it might be an uphill battle for Sonnanstine to keep his spot in the rotation when Kazmir returns. But with the show of heart and ability he has, he might not be the front runner to stay, but you can’t count him out yet either.


That was a pretty impressive outing by Niemann. And I understand your wish that the roster could move up to 30 players now. With Smoltz getting ready to come back and Buchholz doing so well in Triple-A, I suspect the Red Sox would like to be able to keep more players in Boston also.


Sometimes it just seems like an extra couple players could be huge up here.
But then again, maybe in the future after the next CBA they might increase the numbers.
It would mean a few extra jobs at the major league level, which the union would love ( dues).

Rays Renegade


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