Is there really a chance that Jeff Niemann could return to the Rays? I always thought he gave the team an interesting option as a starter based on the steep angle he creates with his size.
-- Tim S., Baltimore

Niemann opted to become a free agent on Monday after the Rays outrighted him off the 40-man roster. In talking to him, he noted that he'd definitely be interested in coming back. Niemann understands that Tampa Bay's action was something the club had to do, and electing to become a free agent was what he had to do as well. That being said, his focus will be on getting his surgically repaired shoulder ready. Niemann is optimistic he'll be healthy enough to be back on the mound during the first half of the 2014 season, but he acknowledged that a second-half return is more likely.

Funny thing, pitchers in Niemann's boat normally draw interest from the Rays when they are shopping for a bargain with high upside. And Tim, I agree with you about what Niemann brings to the mound. To my knowledge, no other pitcher in baseball creates the downward angle that the 6-foot-9 Niemann does.

Have a question about the Rays?
Bill ChastainE-mail your query to MLB.com Rays beat reporter Bill Chastain for possible inclusion in a future Inbox column. Letters may be edited for brevity, length and/or content.
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Question:

Why is Alex Torres never mentioned as a potential starter for the Rays in 2014? He did well as a starter in Durham.
-- Bob W., Fuquay-Varina, N.C.

As most remember, Torres started for most of his career in the Minor Leagues before coming up to the Rays this season and proving to be a potent weapon out of the bullpen. Normally, I'd give you my best answer, but in this particular case, I defer to Andrew Friedman. Here's what the club's executive vice president of baseball operations had to say: 

"When you think about where Alex was at the end of 2012, his 2013 season seems even more amazing. He grew a lot mentally, and it's safe to say that the numbers speak for themselves -- he was one of the best relief pitchers in the American League. That's a credit to Neil Allen, Marty DeMerritt, our pitching coordinators, Major League coaches and, most of all, to Alex himself. He can get both lefties and righties out and absolutely has the stuff to be a big league starter. But with the personnel we have, and the way he fit into a relief role this year, I think it's likely we'll see him stay in the bullpen in 2014, but it is too early to say anything definitive one way or the other."

I see that the Cubs did not select Dave Martinez as their manager, and he hasn't been selected for jobs with other clubs. Why do you think he has not landed a managing job? He's a former player and he's served as the bench coach for Joe Maddon. If anything, just standing next to the best manager in the game every night ought to be worth something. So what gives?
-- Ed F., Tampa, Fla.

I'm scratching my head about that one, too. Martinez is smart and, like you pointed out, he's stood next to Maddon for several years, and he's a former player -- that should play well with the players. He also can speak Spanish, which helps when communicating with some of the Latin players. My best guess is that Martinez just hasn't been the perfect match yet, because in addition to all of the things already pointed out, he has an engaging personality. I've got to believe his time will come. Martinez has too much going for him.

How much do you think next year's payroll will drop based on the disappointing attendance this past season?
-- Sam G., Brandon, Fla.

This year's Opening Day payroll was $61.9 million. You'd have to assume that with the way the Rays finished in attendance, there would be a resulting cut in the payroll. This organization keeps its cards close to its vest and, to date, no one has mentioned a figure it expects to be at next season -- and I don't expect anyone to do so, since they never have in the past. In short, this is a tough question to answer. But the nice part about being a Tampa Bay fan is the fact that even if the payroll is cut, this organization always seems to find a way to remain competitive.

Who are some of the top prospects we should be excited to see at Tropicana Field in the next year or two?
-- Jim R., Clearwater, Fla.

The top three names that come to mind are: Alex ColomeEnny Romero and Kevin Kiermaier. All three were with the team at some point during the 2013 season. Colome and Romero, Nos. 4 and 5 on the club's Top 20 Prospects, according to MLB.com, are hard-throwing pitchers, and I had a chance to take a good look at both during Spring Training and again when both joined the team. Romero is left-handed and Colome throws right-handed. Both are from the Dominican Republic, and they both seem to do everything right.

However, I'm most intrigued about Kiermaier, who seemed to come out of nowhere when he joined the team at the end of the season. A left-handed-hitting outfielder with a superior arm, Kiermaier has received glowing reports from anyone who has seen him play. The tease for me is the fact that even though he joined the team, and actually played in the field, I haven't really had a chance to see what he can do yet. No doubt a lot of Rays fans will want to see Kiermaier play come Spring Training in Port Charlotte.

Hot Stove season is here. Which of the team's free agents do you see the Rays trying to bring back for the 2014 season?
-- Ken C., Tampa, Fla.

In my opinion, the only guy I would rule out is Luke Scott. I don't believe the Rays want him back, and I don't think Scott would want to come back after falling out of Tampa Bay's plans down the stretch last season. Many of the other decisions will come down to the market.

For example, will free-agent closer Fernando Rodney receive an offer based on what he did during the 2012 season, when he had a record-setting showing, or will he be paid on what he did in 2013, when he still had good numbers but came back down to earth? Or Delmon Young, who did some nice work after joining the Rays at the end of the season and would provide a nice bat from the right side in 2014. How much will he be worth on the open market?

As much as many of these guys would like to return to the team, they can't ignore offers for far greater than what Tampa Bay is offering. I sometimes get amused when listening to friends, colleagues and fans discuss how a certain player only received $500,000 more to sign with another team. I will generally ask them: "Do you hear yourself? That's a lot of money." And in most cases, the money is far more significant than half a million.