The Rays entered today with four arbitration-eligible players still unsigned. With the deadline to file for a hearing at 1 PM, the Rays have crossed one name off the list, agreeing to a 1-year, 3 million dollar contract with right-hander Jeff Niemann per Jon Heyman of CBS Sports.
Niemann, who turns 30 next month, receives a slight raise from the 2.75 million dollars he made in 2011 in his first go-around in arbitration after a 2012 season that saw him pitch as well as even when healthy but miss nearly the entire year with a fractured bone in his leg from a line drive in May and a shoulder problem in September. In 8 starts for the Rays, Niemann went 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA, an 8.1 K/9, a 2.8 BB/9, and a 0.5 HR/9 in 38 innings pitched. Niemann’s ERA, K/9, HR/9, and also his groundball rate (51.9%) FIP (3.09) and xFIP (3.65) would all have been career-highs but we’ll never know how he would have done if he stayed healthy. Glancing at the Pitch F/X data from Brooks Baseball, the big differences for him were improved fastball command that led to more swings-and-misses along with weaker contact and also that his slider looked unhittable, managing a 19.3% whiff rate compared to his 11.6% career mark. Niemann has been a streaky pitcher before (he managed a 2.15 ERA in 10 starts from his return from the DL in June of 2011 to mid-August only to collapse the rest of the year), but the stats show that some of his improvement may just be real. Although we can’t expect Niemann to manage a low-3.00′s ERA next season after never managing a mark below 3.90 in any of his three full seasons in the majors, if Niemann can improve moderately and finally stay healthy, his 3 million dollar salary for next season could be a steal and it would certainly help the Rays survive after trading away James Shields. There was some talk that Niemann would be traded, but his trade value is very low coming off the injuries, and he’s most valuable as part of the Rays’ rotation for next season. Nice to see Niemann and the Rays agree to terms, and if Niemann can finally stay healthy and show that his improvement with his fastball and slider is real, he will plug a big hole for the Rays in 2013 as an innings-eater and a veteran in a very young rotation.