One way or another, it looks like Jeff Niemann is one foot out the door for the Tampa Bay Rays. Niemann, who will turn 30 next month, is arbitration-eligible for the second time this winter after missing nearly all of 2012 with a fractured bone in his leg and then a shoulder injury. When he was healthy, Niemann did pitch well, going just 2-3 but with a 3.08 ERA and a 34-12 strikeout to walk ratio in 8 starts and 38 innings pitched, but Niemann made 2.75 million dollars in 2012 and even when healthy, he has not proven himself to be more than a fourth or fifth starter in the major leagues, managing a 4.08 ERA (99 ERA+) and a 4.31 FIP in 544.1 big league innings over the past five years. That isn’t to say Niemann can’t be a productive major league starting pitcher if he stays healthy, but especially for a team in the Rays with younger and cheaper options, it makes a lot of sense to trade him. If Niemann proves himself healthy and pitches well in spring training, there seems to be a very good chance that he’ll be dealt before the start of the 2013 MLB season.
Would could the Rays get for Niemann? A trade happened recently that is somewhat comparable as the Cleveland Indians traded RHP Jeanmar Gomez to the Pittsburgh Pirates for LF Quincy Latimore. Gomez, who will turn 25 next month, made 38 starts and 4 relief appearances over the last three years, going 14-16 with a 5.18 ERA (76 ERA+), a 4.9 K/9, a 3.1 BB/9, and a 1.2 HR/9 (4.88 FIP) in 206.2 innings pitched. However, Gomez did manage a solid 48.9% groundball rate and has the arsenal to be much better than he has been in the big leagues, featuring a good low-90’s sinker, a slider and changeup that both have shown flashes, and a solid high-80’s cutter. Gomez was never that great of a pitcher, but he managed a 3.90 ERA, a 6.7 K/9, a 3.0 BB/9, and a 0.8 HR/9 (4.00 FIP) in 54 Triple-A starts and may be a pitcher who could benefit from a change of scenery. He has the ability to be a solid back-of-the-rotation type starter, and as a pre-arbitration player with no injury history, he’s a player that was worth it for another team to take a chance on.
Latimore, who will turn 24 in February (if you haven’t noticed yet, every player we’ve talked about has a February birthday), was a fourth round pick by Pittsburgh in 2007 and had a solid 2012 repeating Double-A, managing a .252/.321/.433 line with 24 doubles, 15 homers, 71 RBI, 10 stolen bases (albeit while getting caught 8 times), and a 105-38 strikeout to walk ratio in 126 games and 462 plate appearances. Latimore has always stood out for good bat speed and enough power to potentially hit 20 homers in the big leagues, but his development has been held back by a problems with patience and pitch recognition, although he did take a step forward in 2012, improving his strikeout to walk ratio from 140-33 to 105-38 (although how much of that improvement was simply from repeating the level?). Latimore has decent speed and a good arm, but he’s limited to left field defensively and he’s going to really hit to have any chance to profile as a regular there in the major leagues. Latimore is just a so-so prospect at this point, but he still has potential, and if you buy his offensive adjustment in 2012, he may have finally turned a corner.
Niemann has to have more value than Gomez. Indeed, he does, but not by that much. He has more experience and has proven himself to be a solid big league starter, but his salary is more than five times higher than Gomez and his injury risk is much more significant. If Niemann shows good stuff in spring training, the Rays could get a prospect for him, but that prospect will likely be not much more highly-regarded than someone like Latimore. If that’s really the case, than the Rays may be better off holding onto to Niemann and seeing what he can do in a starting role for them as opposed to trading him at the nadir of his value and seeing what they can get.