PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- "Back end of the rotation" seems to carry a negative connotation, as if bringing up the rear for a Major League rotation is the dregs. No. 5 starters are the ugly ducklings or the runts of the rotation litter.
During the franchise's "Devil Rays" era, the team normally had an entire staff of guys unqualified to pitch at the back end of any team's rotation. Oh how things can change over time. Now the Rays have four guys competing for the No. 5 spot that would fit nicely in any team's rotation -- and likely in slots higher than No. 5.
At this juncture, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore and Alex Cobb occupy the top four spots in the Rays' rotation. That leaves Jeff Niemann, Roberto Hernandez, Chris Archer and Jake Odorizzi, who is ranked the organization's No. 3 prospect by MLB.com, to compete for the final spot.
Archer smiled when asked about the competition.
"What competition?" Archer said.
The 24-year-old right-hander then elaborated.
"When I had my individual meeting, they didn't say there's competition for the fifth spot," Archer said. "They were like, 'We don't know how things will shake out. These are things we'd like to see you improve on. Go out there and work hard every day.' Pretty generic things, that's why I was like, 'What competition?' because I don't really know if there is one. I don't know if it's just [Niemann and Hernandez], three of us, four of us, they just said, 'We don't know how things are going to shake out. Go out there, work on these things and continue to develop.'"
Before Spring Training runs its course, a battle will be won for the No. 5 spot. Although everybody knows who they are, the candidates have not been officially defined, nor has the criteria for making a decision.
Niemann has survived two competitions to earn spots in the Rays' rotation, coming out the winner against Jason Hammel in 2009 and against Wade Davis in 2012. The competition with Hammel ended with a twist when the club named its team then headed north to start the season in Boston. Remaining behind in Port Charlotte were Niemann and Hammel to have a pitch-off for the No. 5 spot. Both pitchers were out of options, so in essence, what occurred came straight from championship wrestling when Niemann and Hammel partook in what amounted to a loser leaves town match.
Niemann won that battle. Hammel was traded to the Rockies.
"Yeah, that was pretty bizarre," Niemann said. "It was almost like a win by default because of the options thing. [Hammel] and I had been together [in the Rays' system] for a while, so that was pretty weird [to have the pitch-off against him]. [It was] pretty awkward meeting the team in Boston after the fact, too."
Despite surviving two previous competitions, Niemann still smiled when asked if he understands what criteria is used for deciding who wins the pitching beauty contest.
"No, I'm not sure any of us really understand," Niemann said. "We just go out there and do our thing, and somehow we seem to fit in this thing we got going here, and it works well. As far as asking me what it would actually take [to win the job], I have no idea."
Obviously, Niemann and Hernandez are the top candidates. Niemann will make $3 million this season, Hernandez will make $3.25 million, both are out of options, and each has a solid Major League track record.
The variables for governing the decision are considerable, and those variables are not necessarily ones taking place on the field.
"Essentially, the Tampa Bay Rays are a business and they're trying to run it as efficiently as possible," Archer said, "and they're doing a pretty good job of it. They have a low payroll and they win 93 games a year. They know what they're doing. Pretty good business model."
No doubt the Rays' front office will crunch a lot of data before arriving at a decision by the end of Spring Training. Understanding that simplifies what a player needs to do even if he's unaware of everything that will be calculated before a decision is reached.
"You just have to go out and pitch and leave it up to the decision makers," Odorizzi said. "It's a good situation to have if you're the Rays. If you have four guys who can take that spot, I guess you're in good shape."
Many scenarios could unfold. Crowded pitching situations normally have a way of working themselves out over the course of a Spring Training. For example, a trade or an injury could happen. One thing is for certain, the back end of the Rays' rotation should be fine. When asked if he had a prediction about who will win the covert competition, Niemann chuckled: "No way."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.