Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Top 15 Pitchers: #4 Jeff Niemann

Jeff NiemannJeff Niemann
6'9" 280 lbs. DOB: 2/28/83
Right-Handed Starting Pitcher
Bats: Right | Throws: Right
2008: Durham/Tampa Bay
Acquired: 2004 Draft, 1st Round, 4th Overall

Back in 2004, Niemann was considered the most MLB-ready player in the entire draft. Part of Rice's fabled Big Three along with Phil Humber and Wade Townsend, Niemann had more or less dominated the college ranks and most everyone figured it wouldn't be long until he was doing it in the majors.

Well, it didn't quite work out that way. Injuries really hampered him, as he made just 8 starts in 2005 and 14 in 2006. In Durham for 2007, he stayed relatively healthy, only missing a start here and there, but it was apparent injuries had robbed him of his front-line stuff. He allowed more than a hit an inning and struck out 8.5 hitters per 9, which is decent, but not what people expected from Niemann a few years ago. Like Mitch Talbot, Niemann repeated Durham in 2008 to better results: his WHIP fell from 1.45 to 1.14, and again, he stayed healthy.

Niemann was also pressed into service in Tampa Bay in April with both Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza hurting. He made one good start(6.1 IP 1 ER) and one not-so-good(3.1 IP 5 ER) before returning to Durham. He was back in Tampa Bay as a September call-up and appeared in three games in relief with limited effectiveness.

Now 26 years old, the huge right-hander is out of options and in the running for the Rays #5 starter spot this spring. When he's on, Niemann can still be dominant with a fastball that now resides in the 92-95 MPH range and a hard curveball. He also makes use of an improving splitter, and has the added advantage of throwing on a downward plane. He struggles at times to get ahead in the count and occasionally leaves too many pitches up in the zone.

A lot in Niemann's scouting report would peg him as a potentially dominant reliever, but there's two noteworthy hang-ups there. Most importantly, Niemann takes a long time to get loosened, which is no big deal when he starts, but if the Rays need to scramble him up in the bullpen and come in quickly, he won't be as effective. Secondly, Niemann's not very good at holding runners on, something teams could take advantage of late in games.

For what it's worth, there's been little(if anything) written about the warm-up woes this spring, and both Joe Maddon and Niemann himself have talked about the bullpen as a realistic possibility, and neither seemed too worried. With two solid spring outings under his belt, Niemann is among the front-runners for the #5 spot in the rotation(at this point it's likely either him or Hammel). Even if he does win it, he's probably only keeping the seat warm for David Price a little bit later on this year, so a move to the bullpen is probably going to happen anyway, unless he draws interest from another team as a trade piece.

Niemann will be in the majors in some capacity in 2009, it's just a matter of where. For my money, he's the best option for the #5 job to start the year, and then if everyone is healthy and performing well when Price is ready in May or June, then a move to the bullpen would work. Alternatively, if the coaches are worried about him warming up and see him in the bullpen later this year anyway, then it might make sense to have him start in the bullpen to work on overcoming his warm-up problems and get used to coming on in relief.

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