The baseball gods must be upset with the Rays this year, as they haven’t been able to avoid injuries at any point so far this season. The Rays have had a total of nine players on the Disabled List this season, including B.J. Upton, Kyle Farnsworth (60-day DL), Sam Fuld (60-day DL), Robinson Chirinos (60-day DL), Jose Lobaton, Evan Longoria, Brandon Allen, Desmond Jennings, and Jeff Niemann. Besides Upton and Chirinos (rehab assignment), all of them are currently on the DL.
After lingering as day-to-day for over a week with a sprained left knee, Jennings was finally placed on the 15-day DL. Not only are the Rays without their biggest offensive producer Evan Longoria, but now they’ll have to manage without their leadoff hitter for some time. With Jennings out the offense—and the defense—takes another huge blow. He’s probably the biggest part of the Rays’ running game, as well as a plus defender in the outfield which can’t be replaced by the likes of Brandon Guyer and Stephen Vogt.
The Rays were hit with yet another big injury last night, as Jeff Niemann—the fifth man in the starting rotation—broke his leg on a hard comebacker against the Blue Jays. X-rays revealed a small fracture above Niemann’s right ankle, which will sideline him for a minimum of 4-6 weeks.
The injury could not come at a much worse time for Niemann and the Rays, as the big right-hander seemed to be on the way up after his best start of the season in Yankee Stadium last Wednesday, where he silenced the New York bats with seven sharp innings of one-run ball. Although he’s in the number five spot in the rotation, Niemann has been a key piece to the Rays’ pitching staff this year. He’s probably been the most consistent starter for the Rays this season, as he hasn’t had a start with more than three earned runs thus far (3.38 ERA on the season). With Matt Moore having some early season struggles in the No. 4 hole, Niemann has been the core of the back end of the rotation, giving his team a chance to win in every single game he pitched this year.
Niemann is no stranger to injuries, however, as they’ve already stifled his chance of becoming a star multiple times in his career. In 2010, it appeared as he was headed towards a breakout season, posting a 2.77 ERA with a 7-2 record through 117 innings pitched in the first half. After getting hurt in August, it all went down hill for him from there as he imploded in a horrific end to the season. In early May of last year, Niemann was placed on the DL with back problems, and it was likely was the only thing that got in the way of a solid year for him. Before the injury, when his back was probably bothering him, Niemann went 1-4 with an ERA of about 6.38. After returning from the injury, he went 10-3 with a 3.94 ERA.
Now the question is who will replace Niemann for the time being. Alex Cobb—who’s already filled in for a Jeff Niemann injury in the past—is definitely a possibility. Cobb gave the Rays a huge boost last year while Niemann was out last year, going 3-2 with a 3.42 ERA in nine starts (his only MLB experience). After eight starts with Triple-A Durham this season, Cobb is 1-4 with a 4.14 ERA.
Top prospect Chris Archer is also in the conversation. Although he seems to be heating up now, he’s had a rather slow start to the season posting a 4.71 after eight starts with Durham. Wade Davis—who was edged out of a starting role by Niemann—is another possibility to take his place. He’s done well out of the ‘pen so far this season, posting a 2.04 ERA through 17.2 innings pitched. With more experience in the rotation than both Cobb and Archer, he could be the front-runner for the gig, but then again the Rays may want to keep him in the bullpen where he’s had success.