When David Price appeared in a rain-drenched minor league game the other day, we saw that even if few other things matter in spring training, making sure starting pitchers remain on schedule is critical. Well, at least that’s the case for everyone but Jeff Niemann. Niemann was supposed to go on Tuesday but instead the Rays decided to push back his start until Friday. Following the move, Niemann said that the reason for it was so that he would be able to work in a major league game instead of a minor league one, but should we buy that? Is there more behind this change than meets the eye and could it tell us something about Niemann’s health or even his future in Tampa Bay?
In his last start, Niemann scared everyone watching as his fastball velocity was down and he was way off his game the entire outing. When a pitcher’s velocity is down, your first thought has to be that an injury might be involved. Did the Rays give Niemann more rest to make sure he’s OK moving forward? And why three days? It’s not as though the Rays just pushed him back for just a day. Three days is a pretty long time and Niemann wil end up making his start of seven days rest. There has to be something going on here. Is it Niemann’s health? Or could they be keeping him out of games as they mull trade offers?
It would be a great story if either of those were the case, but the real answer is still quite interesting. The reason Niemann was moved back three days was exactly the same reason Price made that start in the rain: to make sure he’s lined up for the first day of the season. Niemann couldn’t have started the same day as Hellickson because then he wouldn’t be line up to make a start the first week of the season and also because he needs to actually make starts as he hopes to stretch himself out, and he wouldn’t have been able to do that in relief of Hellickson. But the most compelling reason is that Niemann starting on Friday lines him up to start the Rays’ 5th game of the season on April 6th. Instead of making Niemann’s future with the team look bleak, it actually makes Niemann look good- he and not Hernandez is lined up for that spot, although the Rays might use Hernandez in a spot other than number five to break up all their young pitchers and give them more of an innings eater. It certainly won’t hurt for Niemann to get some additional rest and make sure he’s at 100% for his next start, but all the Rays are doing is making sure all their starters are set for the start of the season and giving Niemann more rest conveniently makes that happen. In the coming days and weeks, we’ll see whether one of the conspiracy theories we talked about above might really be true- especially if Niemann sits in the 85-86 MPH range again with his fastball, the Rays might have serious reason for concern. But for now, this is a non-story, albeit an interesting one, and we’ll just have to see how Niemann does when he gets back onto the mound.