Here’s an interesting little table.
Jeff Niemann, the team’s 5th starter, makes the third-most money of anybody in the Rays’ rotation. In fact, he makes as much money as Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, and Alex Cobb combined. And that is magnified even more because of Niemann’s persistant injury problems. By the way, Niemann is, at 29, older than any Rays starter other than James Shields, and if he pitches well when he comes back and even if he doesn’t, he’s due for a raise in arbitration. Is it worth it for the Rays to hold onto Niemann?
Jeff Niemann is not a bad pitcher. The past five years, Niemann has gone 40-26 with a 4.11 ERA, a 6.7 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 in 91 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 541 innings. His FIP is 4.25, his xFIP 4.15, and his SIERA is 4.17. He was especially good to begin 2012, going just 2-3, but with a 3.38 ERA, a 7.8 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9, amounting to a 3.20 FIP and a 3.63 xFIP. We’ve seen Niemann carry the Rays in the past, particularly in the early July to mid-August stretch in 2011 where he went 6-0 with a 1.71 ERA (although a 3.46 FIP), capping it off with a complete game win versus the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park (at a game I went up to Boston to attend). Jeff Niemann is one of the few 4th or 5th starters in the big leagues that can carry a team for a month at a time. Overall he’s decent, but for a fifth starter, he’s excellent. But is he worth the money the Rays are giving him?
The Rays want to get maximum value out of their players. Niemann might have the most value right where he is for the Rays. You look at Niemann’s overall numbers and conclude that he’s a mediocre pitcher who gets injured far too often. Only seeing him for seasons at a time do we understand just how good he can be. On the trade market, what would Niemann fetch? Maybe a Grade-B prospect at best, someone with potential but tons of risk, or a solid prospect who’s nothing to write home about. Is it worth trading away what Niemann gives this team for that? The money factor is just annoying. The Rays are an organization not exactly flowing with cash. We get that. But 2.75 million dollars is not that much money in baseball terms. Is it more than Niemann is truly worth? Maybe, but we can’t underestimate his stretches of greatness that we see every year.
What about Cobb and the pitchers like him? Can’t he just seamlessly step in and be just as good of a 5th starter and hopefully stay healthy? We saw Cobb for 9 starts in 2012 and he was rock-solid, maybe even better than Niemann. Chris Archer may have turned a corner with his command and has 2nd starter upside if he has. Oh yeah, there’s also Wade Davis, who has been a solid big league starter in the past and still has better overall upside as a starter than Niemann. You only have so many rotation spots, and Jeff Niemann doesn’t excite you every start like the others that the Rays have. Sure, there’s the matter of rotation depth, but how many guys do you need? We have Shields, Price, Hellickson, Moore, Niemann, Cobb, Davis, Archer, Shane Dyer, Lance Pendleton, and I could keep going!
Niemann is a proven big league starter. And after another injury, albeit a freak one, his value is at its lowest right now. The Rays are going to stick with Niemann and when he comes back from his fractured bone in his leg, he will get his rotation spot back. Niemann’s time out is an opportunity for Alex Cobb to prove (once again) that he can be a dependable major league starter. The Rays are hoping that he can do just that and be ready for a rotation spot in 2013. But they also need Niemann to pitch well to reestablish his value. I don’t think Jeff Niemann begins the 2013 season in Tampa Bay between his inconsistency, injury concerns, and impending arbitration raise. But as long as he’s here, he can be a solid contributor to this team and the Rays will take advantage of that. Is Jeff Niemann worth all the hassle? Maybe on another team, yes. But on a team with the pitching depth of the Rays, his time is running out.