Because Jeff Niemann will miss at least three weeks with back tightness, the Rays have to make a decision about who fills out the rotation for (roughly) the rest of May. Assuming the Rays will keep everyone on normal rest, then the new starter will not be required until Saturday, giving the Rays a few days to decide. The realistic options, it appears, are Andy Sonnanstine, Alex Cobb, or Alex Torres.
I’ve said often that I’m not sure how the 2008 Rays won considering all the injuries and the relative lack of talent (compared to the 2009 and 2010 squads) and it seems to apply to this version of the team too. Virgil guided the Rays through the early stages of April before they somehow found themselves with the second-best April winning percentage in franchise history. Now, with a win on Sunday, the Rays could enter the second week of May in first place. It’s difficult to see the Rays holding off Boston as currently constructed, but in-house promotions and out-of-house additions could change the odds a bit.
Those playoff aspirations have to weigh into the equation on whom to plug into the rotation, but the Rays aren’t monomaniacs—they aren’t going to take a hammer to the Matt Moore or Chris Archer glass cases after a month. There are financial considerations to think about with promoting Cobb and Torres too, of course. Between the pitching depth (the thought of Cobb and/or Torres being gone from St. Pete before they ever reach arbitration) and the expiring CBA, the Rays may have more disincentives to game a starting pitcher’s service time than in the past. It’s not like the Rays were ever as careful with pitchers service time as with hitters anyways.
Going solely on perceived upside, then Sonnanstine should remain in the bullpen as the long man—assuming the Rays continue to carry a long man. The problem, though, is attempting to analyze Cobb and Torres. The closer to the majors, the more meaningful minor league statistics become, but there are cases where statistics can be misunderstood without context. Cobb and Torres pitching well in Durham doesn’t necessarily mean they will dominate in the majors—just look at how a pitcher like Edgar Gonzalez can look useful in Triple-A but helpless in the majors.
Without appealing too much to authority, the Rays probably have the best idea about whether either could step into the big league rotation and succeed. Their willingness to give Cobb a spot start might indicate that they think Cobb can handle the bigs now. I guess we’ll find out within the week.