Rays facing decision with Jeff Niemann on the way back

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Jeff Niemann, out since mid-May with a fractured leg, allowed four runs in 3 1/3 innings in his second rehab start for high-A Charlotte on Tuesday. He’s still probably two rehab starts away from rejoining the Rays, but his return could prompt a roster crunch.

Alex Cobb, Niemann’s rotation replacement, has won his last three starts, allowing exactly one run in seven innings each time. He was struggling some beforehand, but he has pitched better than his 7-8 record and 4.08 ERA overall. In 90 1/3 innings, he’s allowed just four homers and posted a 67/26 K/BB ratio.

Niemann had a 3.38 ERA before going down, so he doesn’t deserve to lose his spot. Still, the Rays could consider taking a look at him in a relief role. After all, he doesn’t project as a member of their playoff rotation, should they make it. The Rays have a top four of David Price, James Shields, Matt Moore and Jeremy Hellickson to use in October, so giving Niemann a head start on pitching out of the pen might be for the best.

Mike Napoli and Rays have “mutual interest” in a deal

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Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times unloaded a lot of interesting news items about the Rays last night, including a report that the Rays might have “mutual interest” in a deal with free agent first baseman/DH Mike Napoli. The Rangers declined Napoli’s $11 million option earlier this month and owe the veteran infielder a $2.5 million buyout.

Napoli, 36, had a strange year in Texas. He turned in 29 home runs, good for 11th-most among AL hitters, but finished the year batting just .193/.285/.428 over 485 plate appearances. According to FanGraphs, his -0.5 fWAR was the worst mark of his career to date, but on the bright side, he should come cheap for a team looking to swap out their veterans come spring.

Of course, the specifics of the Rays’ offseason plan have yet to be divulged — or, by all accounts from Topkin, even decided on. The club could go the refurbishment route, changing out some of their higher-paid veterans for a mix of prospects and cheaper aging players; or they could opt for a full rebuild, which Topkin cautions against as it could have a negative effect on the financing of a new ballpark. Either way, the Rays figure to offload some of their bigger contracts this winter, and will need to decide if they want to retain Alex Colome, Chris Archer, Wilson Ramos, Evan Longoria and others before pursuing any other major free agents.