The Rays are renowned throughout baseball for their starting pitching depth. Their accumulation of young, talented starting pitchers is unmatched throughout baseball. Two pitchers break away from the usual form of the Rays’ starters. The first is James Shields, who, after 7 years as a dependable starter for the Rays, is going to turn 31 years old in December. But he is a product of the Rays’ typical strategy, being a promising pitcher that the Rays signed to a team-friendly extension. The second exception, though, is Jeff Niemann, and his situation is unlike any pitcher the Rays have had since they began contending.
Like Shields, Niemann’s age sets him apart as he’ll turn 30 in February. But that’s where the comparisons between Niemann and Shields end. Niemann was once considered a pitcher with tremendous upside, being the Devil Rays’ 4th overall pick in the 2004 MLB Draft thanks to a fastball that touched 97 MPH and an excellent slider. But the expectations for Niemann were considerably scaled back by the time he made the big leagues in 2008 after arm injuries had greatly diminished his stuff, and that has proven true the last five years. Now Niemann is neither young nor particularly effective. Niemann has his moments- he went 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA and a 61-16 strikeout to walk ratio from late-June to mid-August of 2011, carrying the team while the rest of their rotation struggled. If Niemann didn’t pitch as well as he did during that stretch, the Rays would not have made the 2011 postseason. But then the situation completely flipped as Niemann managed just a 6.08 ERA in his final 7 starts of the year, forcing the Rays to get huge contributions from their offense and long relievers in his starts to win enough to go on their magical September run. There’s a reason scouts thought Niemann had number one starter upside at one point. But in the long run, he’s nothing more than an innings eater and a bad one at that- he has been on the DL each of the last three seasons, pitching just 38 innings in 2012 thanks to a fracture in his leg and shoulder problems, and he has never topped 185 innings any year, let alone the watermark 200.
Jeff Niemann is a solid pitcher when healthy, but he has no future with the team and isn’t so cheap either, making 2.75 million dollars in his first go-around through arbitration in 2012. The Rays have plenty of starters to fill out their rotation next season even if they trade a starter or even two. You have David Price, James Shields, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Moore, Alex Cobb, and Chris Archer ready for the big leagues with guys like Cesar Ramos and Alex Colome ready to be rotation reinforcements if and when it becomes necessary. The Rays have absolutely no reason to keep Niemann. All he would be doing would be taking starts away from a pitcher like Cobb or Archer while making more money than any Rays starter not named Price or Shields.
With that being the case, what should the Rays do with Niemann? Should they decline to tender him a contract, making him a free agent? Should they try to trade him? What we need to find is a precedent for a player like Niemann being traded and luckily there are a few possible comparisons.
Randy Wolf surpassed 200 innings for the Phillies in 2000, 2002, and 2003 including a 16-10 record and an All-Star appearance in the last of those three seasons, but the injury bug would afflict Wolf greatly in subsequently seasons. After elbow inflammation held him to 136.2 innings in 2004, Tommy John Surgery held him to just 136.2 innings in 2005 and 2006. Then shoulder surgery held him to 102.2 innings with the Dodgers in 2007. Wolf had a 102 career OPS+ to that point, so essentially he was, like Niemann, an innings-eating starter who couldn’t stay healthy. Wolf then signed with the Padres as a free agent and was pitching horrifically, managing a 4.74 ERA in 119.2 IP while pitching his home games at Petco Park, and the Padres traded him to the Astros before the trade deadline for Chad Reinke, a once-promising pitching prospect who had seen his career stall thanks to diminishing stuff and terrible command. Reinke appeared in just 4 games for the Padres before they traded him to the Athletics for a non-prospect.
Carlos Silva was a solid pitcher for the Twins from 2004 to 2007, posting a 4.42 ERA (102 ERA+) including a couple nice seasons to bookend that four-year stretch, posting ERAs of 4.21 and 4.19 respectively and surpassing 200 innings both years. The Mariners signed him to a 4-year, 48 million dollar contract only to watch him completely implode, posting a 6.46 ERA in 153.1 IP in 2008 as he dealt with back problems the entire season in addition to a DL stint for his elbow, and then he pitched just 30.1 innings in 2009 after missing nearly the entire season after fraying his rotator cuff. Following the season, the Mariners managed to trade Silva to the Chicago Cubs for perpetual enigma Milton Bradley, who had posted a square 100 OPS+ with terrible defense in 2009 but actually had an unbelievable 162 OPS+ in 2008 with the Rangers. Bradley posted a .209/.298/.351 line (84 OPS+) in 101 games with the Mariners from 2010 to 2011 before they released him.
Innings-eating starting pitchers are the opposite of polarizing, being solid players that have their limitations but will give you their 200 innings every year. But once injuries enter the equation, the consistency they had provided gets pushed into the background. Niemann has the advantage of a lower salary than Wolf and Silva had when they were traded, but he doesn’t have as long of a track record of success and has never actually gone over 200 innings. Wolf and Silva netted enigmatic players and Niemann would be lucky to get the same right now. If the Rays want to trade him, their best hope is netting a frustrating player at Triple-A, another team’s Alex Torres (who has nasty stuff, managing a 12.1 K/9 at Triple-A in 2012- but he also walked 7.5 per 9). Is that trade even worth it? The only reason to trade Niemann for a player like that would be to give a rotation spot to Cobb or Archer.
The Rays’ best bet is to hold onto Niemann for now- there’s no point of non-tendering him, letting him leave for nothing. They will see how their rotation situation develops and whether they trade a frontline starter, and by the end of spring training, they will assess whether to keep him. At that point, the Rays will have two options: either giving Niemann a rotation spot or trading him like they dealt Jason Hammel in 2010 after Niemann beat Hammel out for the Rays’ 5th starter spot, and seeing Niemann get into games for a couple of weeks will certainly play a role in that decision while also giving Niemann time to audition for other teams. But before we make a Niemann trade sound like simply a question of when, Niemann getting a rotation spot for the Rays next year is actually not so far-fetched. The Rays could very well decide that Archer could use more time at Triple-A to refine his command and his changeup, and Niemann could be part of a 6-man rotation next season along with Price, Shields, Hellickson, Moore, and Cobb. If the Rays were to trade a starter, Niemann would become even more important.
Jeff Niemann is not part of the Rays’ long-term plans and he will make more than the Rays would like next season, but he’s still a solid mid-rotation option when healthy and the Rays will almost definitely keep him for now. Even if Niemann is an outlier in the Rays’ pitching staff, the Rays appreciate his talents and will give him a chance to prove that he can stay on the mound in 2013 and finally combine the flashes of brilliance he has shown over the years with dependability.