Competing for the Rays fifth starter job this spring are right-handers Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez. Both are coming off loss years, with Hernandez making just three starts between his “identity crisis” and an ankle injury and Niemann making only eight thanks to a broken bone in his leg and elbow issues, but both have experienced quite a bit of success in the past, giving them the ability to be a whole lot more than a fifth starter for the Rays this season. Other than their common handedness and that backstory, though, there has been almost nothing similar between Niemann and Hernandez this spring. Hernandez has come out and looked as good as ever, reaching the mid-90’s with his sinker to go along with an overbearing changeup and a good slider. Niemann, meanwhile, still hasn’t hit 90 MPH all spring and has sat primarily in the 85-86 MPH range with his fastball. And seeing that happen made watching Niemann on Thursday at the Orioles’ spring home in Sarasota or on MLB.TV had to make fans scared that something is seriously wrong with Niemann and all but put Hernandez down as the Rays’ fifth starter for this season.
Niemann managed to toss 4.1 shutout innings for the Rays, but he allowed 1 run on 4 hits and 3 walks while striking out just 3 walks. Everyone has rough outings in spring training, but Niemann’s problems had to do with a lot more than simple control issues. Niemann hit as high as 88 MPH, but he sat primarily in the 85-86 MPH range with a few readings as low at 83 MPH (hopefully those were cutters), and even at such low velocities he had major issues keeping his pitches down. He was able to get away with leaving pitches up in this outing, even striking out Nolan Reimold on an ugly-looking two-seamer that ended up waist-high on the outside corner, and allowing so many flyballs didn’t really cost him as most of them were caught harmlessly by the Rays’ outfielders, but when you leave pitches at sub-par velocities in places like that, major league hitters will destroy them.
The news wasn’t all but for Niemann as his slider in the 78-82 MPH range looked really good and was easily his best pitch of the outing, and he also had some good changeups way down in the high-70’s compared to the mid-80’s velocity where they normally are. But Niemann’s low-70’s curveball was even worse than his fastball, looking loopy and hanging up in the zone, and he’s going to need as many weapons as he can possibly get if his fastball can’t be a consistent offering to set up his other pitches. Niemann had one great pitch in the outing in his slider and another one that showed some flashes in his changeup, but the lasting image was his fastball not doing anything, and Niemann has to rectify that immediately.
Joe Maddon said earlier this spring than Niemann was gradually building up his velocity, but this is getting ridiculous. All these observations were only from one outing and hopefully Niemann can look a lot better than this his next time out, but it’s time to start getting concerned about Niemann. If Niemann doesn’t get noticeably better soon, the Rays will be stuck in a nightmare scenario where Niemann is healthy but hasn’t pitched well enough to have any trade value. Hopefully this is all premature and Niemann will get back on track soon, but things aren’t looking good right now, and the Rays have to be considering their options if Niemann doesn’t get all that much better than this.