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02/06/09 12:51 PM EST

Decisions loom for AL champs

Hammel, Niemann could be lost if they don't make Rays' roster

ST. PETERSBURG -- Flash back to the end of Spring Training last March.

A pair of right-handers were locked in a battle for the final spot in the Rays' bullpen. Ultimately, Scott Dohmann beat out Grant Balfour on the basis of what he had accomplished the previous season, despite the fact Balfour had a better spring.

Tampa Bay liked both pitchers, but the cold hard fact stared club management in the face: Balfour was out of options.

Every player gets three options. But if a player has less than five years of professional experience, he can be sent to the Minor Leagues in a fourth season without being subject to waivers. Once the options are all gone, any team can claim him off waivers if he gets sent back to the Minor Leagues. If a player clears waivers, he can pick to be a free agent or to play in the Minors.

Fortunately for the Rays, the timing of their decision to designate Balfour coincided with the timing of every other team in Major League Baseball setting its 25-man rosters. If a team wanted Balfour, it had to bump a player from its roster.

Balfour wasn't happy with the way the move went down, since it limited his ability to catch on with another Major League team. He stewed a bit before accepting a deal to play for Triple-A Durham, where he turned any pent up frustrations into 96-mph fastballs on the black and a nasty mound attitude that earned him a return trip to the Rays.

In Balfour's case, the Rays made a sound business play -- and they were lucky another team did not claim him.

This spring, Tampa Bay has six players who are out of options: Willy Aybar, Balfour, Jason Bartlett, Gabe Gross, Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann. Of those, Aybar, Balfour, Bartlett and Gross are locks to make the team. However, problems enter the picture where Hammel and Niemann are concerned.

Hammel and Niemann will begin Spring Training as serious contenders for the fifth spot in the Rays' starting rotation; David Price and Mitch Talbot are also in the mix for the slot.

In Hammel and Niemann, Tampa Bay has two quality arms. Each has the potential to be a top-shelf Major League pitcher, and in past Rays seasons, each would have been in the rotation. Other teams know which players are out of options, so it's likely clubs will be like buzzards circling the Rays' transaction news so they can claim either pitcher in the event they are designated for assignment.

Hot Stove

One true thing about baseball is pitchers get injured, so there is a chance Tampa Bay will have an injury this spring that will affect its pitching depth, thereby eradicating what is a pleasant problem. Conversely, if the staff remains healthy, what will the Rays do? They would love to keep Hammel and Niemann, but even more important, they would like to get some sort of value in return if they do have to lose one or both pitchers.

Also factoring into this decision is Price, the organization's top pitching prospect. If he becomes the No. 5 starter, as many believe he will, that means the Rays' bullpen must absorb both Hammel and Niemann in order for the club to keep both. Both pitched in the bullpen in 2008, but it's a stretch to think the American League champs' bullpen could absorb both.

However, the possibility also exists that Price -- who everybody knows has front-end-of-the-rotation stuff -- could begin the season at Durham, where he would be able to tweak his changeup just enough to where he will never be sent down once he's with the Rays. If that does happen, either Niemann or Hammel could assume the No. 5 spot to start the season and the other could work as the team's long man in the bullpen.

Should Price begin the season at Durham, it's likely he would make only a handful of starts before he returned. But the Rays would be buying time by making such a move, which would allow the team to showcase both Hammel and Niemann to other teams to get something in return via a trade rather than having another team claim them.

That's the business of baseball, and sometimes playing general manager isn't such an easy proposition.

Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.