The Toronto Blue Jays’ Adam Lind has hit Jeff Niemann hard in the past, but never like he did on Monday night. In the first inning of the series opener, Lind hit a sharp liner off Niemann’s right leg. The Tampa Bay Rays’ right-hander recovered to get the out, and after a short injury delay was able to retire the side. Meanwhile, despite receiving medical attention in between innings, he was unable to complete his warm-up tosses prior to the second inning and was replaced by Cesar Ramos. Initially, the injury was called an ankle contusion; however, x-rays later revealed a small fracture of the right fibula. While no official timetable has been set, Niemann will miss a considerable amount of time.
This latest injury will land Niemann on the disabled list for the third straight season. In 2010, he missed 21 days with a right shoulder strain. Last season, he was disabled for 45 days with a back strain. He has also missed time for shoulder related injuries as a minor leaguer. Coming into the season, his endurance –both in-game and in-season – was a legitimate concern.
Many figured Tampa Bay would trade a starting pitcher this offseason. Meanwhile, Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman was able to make his offensive upgrades without sacrificing depth. With the unfortunate situation surrounding Niemann, the non-move becomes a rather big one.
The most obvious candidate to replace Jeff Niemann would be Wade Davis. The 26-year-old narrowly lost the battle for the fifth starter spot in spring training, and has been highly effective out of the bullpen. In 17.2 innings of relief, he has struck out 16 batters while walking six and allowing just one home run. Durability is not a concern for Davis; however, he may not be ready for a starter’s workload.
Davis has made 12 appearances this season. Of those appearances, he has thrown less than 30 pitches in seven of them. His season high came on May 6th when he tossed 53 pitches against the Oakland A’s.
The right-hander worked all spring as a starter, but is unlikely to be ready to thrown 100 pitches by this weekend. Because Niemann is expected months and not just weeks, Davis could be a candidate to replace him down the road; however, the immediate rotation replacement is likely to come from Triple-A.
Because the bullpen was forced to throw eight innings after Niemann’s exit, the Rays will likely call up a reliever to take the vacated roster spot until a starter is needed on Saturday. The Durham Bulls currently have five members of the 40-man roster in their bullpen: Dane De La Rosa, John Gaub, Brandon Gomes, Josh Lueke, and Alex Torres. De La Rosa is an unlikely selection, having thrown 2.1 innings on Monday night. Gaub or Torres would temporarily give the team four left-handed relievers. Lueke has struggled at the major-league and minor-league level this season, but his right-handed arm has not been used since Saturday.
As far as the need for a starter, Alex Cobb and Chris Archer are the top two candidates. Archer has the higher ceiling, but has been inconsistent and is still in the development stage of his career. Cobb is not a finished product either, but has three solid pitches and has shown the ability to get major-league hitters out.
Cobb’s rookie season was cut short by season-ending surgery, but he was very effective in 52.2 innings for the Rays last year. Although he currently carries a 1-4 record (4.14 ERA), he has been good in terms of defensive-independent metrics. In 41.1 innings, he has struck out 44 batters and allowed just one home run. He made his eighth start on Monday, allowing no runs in five innings with eight strikeouts.
Though Cobb’s experience is limited, he would likely produce similar results as Niemann if given the full-time gig. If that is the case, it would also allow Davis to remain as an effective member of the bullpen. His fastball sits in the low-90s with a curveball and a very good changeup/splitter as his secondary options. The off-speed pitch generated a whiff on nearly one-third of the swings against it last season.
With a growing list of disabled players, the Rays organizational depth is being tested. That said, unlike the injuries to Evan Longoria and Desmond Jennings, the team is well-equipped to handle Niemann’s injury. It is certainly an unfortunate situation for Jeff; however, Cobb or Davis should be able to cover his absence without much of a change in results.