Niemann making push for roster spot
Out of options, 26-year-old righty looking to find niche with Rays
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Decision time looms for the Rays. Jeff Niemann is out of options, which means he will either make the team this spring or Tampa Bay risks losing him.
Niemann, 26, is one of the pleasant problems facing the Rays, who have what every team wants: too much starting pitching.
"I'm thrilled about the whole thing," manager Joe Maddon said.
The 6-foot-9, 260-pound right-hander is in the competition to win the No. 5 spot in the rotation or to go to the bullpen. Niemann pitched in both spots during brief stints with Tampa Bay in 2008. Also in the competition are the likes of David Price, Jason Hammel and Mitch Talbot.
"It's so exciting to work with that," Maddon said. "And you're looking at two different roles. All have great personalities. For me as a manager, it's very exciting. Our discussions about these guys are very lively all the time, because we think we have something special with a lot of these guys."
When the soft-spoken Niemann was asked about his situation, he noted that certain things were out of his control.
"All I can control is what I do here on a day-to-day basis," Niemann said. "I just have to try and treat it like I have every other camp here -- try to make the team and see what happens."
Niemann, who was the Rays' top pick in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft, has battled injuries throughout his career, but he was healthy enough in '07 and '08 to make 49 starts at Triple-A Durham.
"Back when I was going through all that stuff, I never considered myself an injury-prone guy," Niemann said. "It was just a bunch of things that happened all around the same time. Being able to go out there the past two years relatively injury-free is comforting for me, and it's comforting for everyone else who is making decisions as well."
Niemann was promoted to the Rays on April 9 to take the place of Matt Garza, who was placed on the disabled list, and Niemann responded with his first Major League win by holding the Orioles to one run on six hits, while walking one and striking out five.
The White Sox delivered the "welcome to the Major Leagues" message in Niemann's next outing when they tagged him for five earned runs in 3 1/3 innings, including an epic blast by Jim Thome. Niemann was optioned back to Durham on April 21.
Niemann was recalled in September and pitched three relief stints to finish at 2-2 with a 5.06 ERA. Not great numbers, but just being in the Major Leagues meant everything.
"That was big to finally get that assurance that you belong and that you can do it," Niemann said. "You tell yourself you can do it until you're blue in the face. But until you get up there and actually do it, you don't really know. So when you do, that gives you the real confidence that you belong."
Niemann is indifferent about whether he's a starter or a reliever, as long as he's in the Major Leagues.
"I experienced both last year and I enjoyed both," Niemann said. "Both have positives and negatives. To be able to do both last year was a great opportunity for me to get a feel for how both sides work."
Maddon talked about how Niemann's size creates "so many long, moving parts that he needs to be on, timing-wise, all the time."
"I think he's getting a better feel for his body and abilities," said Maddon, who added that the deciding factor on whether Niemann makes the team will likely be his fastball command. "You have to have command of your fastball."
Niemann doesn't have a clue about how his fate will play out this spring. He just knows he'd like to remain in a Rays uniform.
"This is all I've ever known," Niemann said. "I want to be a part of this. I got drafted here. But there's a business side, and that's something I've come to learn. It is a business -- whatever happens, happens. There will be some tough decisions to make at the end of camp. Our job is to make it as tough as we can on them."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.