Back in July of 2008, the Rays came very close to acquiring outfielder Jason Bay from the Pittsburgh Pirates. Laugh all you want about what happened to Bay after he signed with the New York Mets, but at that point, Bay was an outstanding player who had an NL Rookie of the Year and a pair of All-Star appearances under his belt and had a .282/.375/.519 line with 22 home runs at the time. Who would the Pirates have received in the deal? Shortstop Reid Brignac and right-hander Jeff Niemann. Wow, how the mighty have fallen.
Brignac is about to head out of town after the Rays designated him for assignment- and the Rays would be lucky to get anything in return for him. He was once an extremely highly-touted prospect, hitting .321 with 24 home runs and 15 stolen bases in 2006 as he won the High-A California MVP Award and following it up with a .260 average, 17 homers, and 15 steals at Double-A the next year. He could do it all, showing a smooth stroke with great power for a shortstop, nice speed, and outstanding defense at shortstop, and the Rays were expecting him to be their shortstop for years to come. His made his full-season debut in the majors in a part-time role in 2010 and played well, hitting .256 with 8 home runs in 326 plate appearances, and the Rays traded away Jason Bartlett so he could be their starting shortstop. But since then, he has completely fallen apart. He still plays great defense, but he never muscled up as expected and never developed any plate discipline and now has just a .227/.268/.317 line (63 OPS+) in 716 major league plate appearances. Brignac still has some potential. He’s coming off a season at Triple-A where he set a career-high with 45 walks and a 11% walk rate and also slammed 8 home runs, and maybe he has finally turned a corner. However, the chances are that he’ll never hit well enough to even start in the major leagues and will be lucky to hold down a utility role. Reid Brignac’s career looked so promising- but at the end of the day, it looks like all of the talent we thought he had will never come to fruition and as Brignac departs, we’re left trying to comprehend what happened.
Hard to believe now, but Jeff Niemann was the 4th overall pick back in 2004, one round before the Rays selected Brignac. Since then, the big 6’9″ right-handed has frustrated Rays fans maybe even more than Brignac, showing tremendous potential but also unceasing inconsistency and a propensity for getting hurt. The Devil Rays almost should have known it right from the start- he underwent arthroscopic surgery in his elbow the fall before he was drafted and also dealt with groin problems over the course of his 2004 season at Rice University. In between, though, Niemann tied an NCAA Division I record by going an unbelievable 17-0. Niemann’s career has followed a similar pattern- but with every injury he has lost something and has performance has dropped. Once able to hit 97 MPH on his fastball to pair with a devastating slider, Niemann’s continued to dip lower and lower after every injury and his slider lost its bite, reducing Niemann’s potential from a frontline starter to a number four or five- when healthy. Niemann has been fine when he has been on the mound the last five years for the Rays, going 40-26 with a 4.08 ERA in 92 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 544.1 innings pitched for the Rays. At times, he has appeared to be every bit the pitcher the Rays thought he would be when they drafted him, including a stretch from June to August of 2011 where he went 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA in 10 starts to carry the team. But Niemann managed just a 6.08 ERA in his final 7 starts of 2011 and that has seemed to happen every time he has ever seemingly made a breakthrough. Whenever the Rays have believed in Niemann, suddenly he’d fall apart whether through an injury or simply poor performance. 2012 may have been an even better example: when healthy, he was great, managing a 3.08 ERA and a 34-12 in 8 starts and 38 innings pitched, but he went down with a broken bone in his leg in May and then a shoulder issue in September and wound up giving the Rays very little on the season. Now, he Rays may have finally run out of patience. Unlike Brignac, they don’t have to trade Niemann immediately, but if he’s healthy and Roberto Hernandez and Chris Archer out-pitch him in spring training, the Rays will trade him for whatever they can get. It’s sad to see a career that once had so much promise about to come to such an undistinguished end. Maybe Niemann can finally stay healthy and carve out a solid career for himself a starter at the back end of a major leaguer rotation. But we’ve seen Niemann struggle through season after season of never-ending struggles, and at this point the Rays may just have to move on.
It’s unbelievable how quickly and how easily former top prospects can fall apart. Five years ago, the Rays could have gotten one and a half season of a star outfielder for Brignac and Niemann. Now, the Rays would be fortunate to get a pair of lottery ticket minor leaguers. Best of luck to Brignac and Niemann wherever they end up, but unfortunately for them, they will be remembered in Tampa Bay as only disappointments who could never live up to the expectations set for them and gave Rays fans nothing but transient glimpses of ability that could never materialize in the long-term.