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Rays to start Hernandez in rotation, Niemann in bullpen

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Published:   |   Updated: March 30, 2013 at 12:36 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Jeff Niemann said he is disappointed to be heading to the bullpen. Surprised? No.


“Not really,” he said. “You kind of start to see how things are going to play out.”


Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon announced the starting rotation Friday morning, with Roberto Hernandez in the third spot.


David Price, the 2012 American League Cy Young Award winner, starts Tuesday’s season opener against the visiting Baltimore Orioles. He’s followed in the rotation by Jeremy Hellickson, Hernandez, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb.


Hernandez will be first pitcher who joined the organization as a free agent to start a game since Hideo Nomo, on July 15, 2005.


Niemann, who has started 92 of his 97 big-league games with the Rays and all but three since he joined the rotation in 2010, will begin the season in the bullpen. The move, Maddon said, was made to help Niemann build arm strength and regain his velocity.


“We’re a little bit, I don’t want to say concerned, but we believe there’s more in there velocity-wise, if we give him more time, that you’re eventually going to see that come back to him,” Maddon said. “That was it.”


Niemann normally throws between 88 and 91 mph. He touched 88 a few times Wednesday during his final start of the spring.


“It’s definitely disappointing,” Niemann said. “I felt like we presented a pretty good case, and you can look at my past and know what we’re capable of doing. This spring, we just did what we could, and the chips fell where they fell.”


Niemann, who had a 2.92 ERA in seven outings, finished the spring with six innings of shutout ball in which he allowed only two hits to the Toronto Blue Jays. Hernandez was rocked by the Philadelphia Phillies in his final start. He allowed 16 earned runs over 27 innings, with most of the damage coming Tuesday against the Phillies.


“I did what I could, that’s all I can tell you,” Niemann said when asked if he felt he got a fair shot this spring. “I did everything we could to put ourselves in the best spot possible, and that’s all we can control.”


Niemann, who declined all spring to speculate on moving to the bullpen until the decision was made, said he will accept his role as the long reliever.


“Of course,” he said. “I’m not going to sit here and just hang out in my locker with my head down. I’m on a big-league team — I’m on a great big-league team — and we’ve done some tremendous things in the past, and I’ve been part of that, and I want to continue to be a part of that. It’s just in a little bit different role.”


Maddon did not rule out the possibility of Niemann returning to the rotation at some point this season. At the same time, Maddon added that Hernandez is not on a short leash.

“Moving down the road, Jeff is a starter,” Maddon said. “How that’s going to play out right now, I can’t tell you specifically, but we see him as a starter — a very good one, actually.”


Hernandez, signed as a free agent in December, has the third spot in the rotation to split Hellickson and Moore, two pitchers who averaged less than six innings per start in 2012. Having them pitch back-to-back could lead to heavy bullpen nights in back-to-back games, a scenario that will impact the bullpen the following game, as well.


Hernandez, who is capable of pitching 200 innings when healthy, is expected to take some strain off the bullpen.


After that, Maddon said the rotation order was set up with the first month of the season in mind.


“It’s just the work that we do, the work that we do to try to match people up, not only the first time through, but during the entire first go-around or the first month or so, just trying to match our pitchers up with what we believe would be the right opposition,” he said.


Hernandez, the former Fausto Carmona, pitched in three games last season with the Cleveland Indians. His troubles began when officials in his native Dominican Republic learned he had been using a fake name to obtain his visa. Those issues cut into his season, as did a three-week suspension imposed by Major League Baseball. A right-ankle injury ended his season after his third start.


Hernandez’s ability to get ground balls will play well with the Rays’ improved defense. Maddon has been so impressed with how Hernandez pitched that he compared it to the way he threw in 2007, when he won 19 games and finished fourth in the American League Cy Young Award voting.


“I feel very close. I want to have the same year I had in 2007,” Hernandez said. “I feel very great. This is a good spot for me.”


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