Injuries to our favorite sports players are a unique phenomenon that we encounter in our lives. For many things, it’s relatively clear to us how good people are at something- I’m a bad cook, she’s a good lawyer, he’s great at backgammon- and we think the same way for sports. We say “That player is a star, the other one over there is mediocre, and I’m not sure why that third guy is in the major leagues.” Injuries, though, cloud the process. They have nothing to do with a player’s talent and how good he is. We tell our fellow fans that “If only he can stay healthy, he could be really good.” Even as the injuries pile up, we convince ourselves that this could be the year that the player stays healthy and has that breakout year we’ve all been waiting for. Sometimes, the injuries are only a phase and the player can get beyond them and live up to his potential. Injuries give us hope that our favorite players can finally have that monster season we’ve been waiting for them to have- after all, they’re good, only injured. But way too many times, the injuries just never end and a few years down the line we’ll ask ourselves how such-and-such just could never put it all together. Every injury makes it increasingly likely that Jeff Niemann‘s story will come to such a frustrating end.
The past 12 months have been a wild ride for Jeff Niemann. Eleven months ago, Niemann was pitching as well as ever, going just 2-3 but with a 3.48 ERA and A 30-11 strikeout-to-walk ratio in his first 6 starts and 33.2 IP. Then in his next outing, a line drive hit him and broke a bone in his leg, taking him out until September. As Niemann returned, Joe Maddon and the Rays were excited, believing that he could be a secret weapon for them down the stretch. Niemann proceeded to go 3.1 shutout innings in his first start back- but he left with shoulder soreness and didn’t pitch another game the rest of the season. Then this spring, Niemann competed with Roberto Hernandez for the Rays’ 5th starter job and pitched well overall although his velocity was down, tossing 6 shutout innings in his final start. However, in a one week period, Niemann went from right there with Hernandez in the Rays’ competition to demoted to the bullpen and then to the disabled list with shoulder soreness. And now things have only gotten worse. Marc Topkin reported that Niemann is likely to undergo surgery on his right shoulder, a surgery that would sideline him for all of 2013. Niemann’s career is officially in free-fall, and after everything we’ve seen, there’s no telling how deep the rabbit hole goes and where it will lead.
Niemann’s career isn’t over and great years could still be ahead. J.P. Howell represents a recent example of a Rays pitcher who survived shoulder surgery- although it wasn’t until two years following the surgery that he was anything like the pitcher he used to be and he still has never regained his previous effectiveness. Jeff Niemann was the 4th overall pick by the Rays in 2004 MLB Draft and at times he has been everything the Rays had imagined he would be. There was an 8-start stretch from early July to mid-August of 2011 where Niemann went 6-0 with a 1.71 ERA and a 54-13 strikeout to walk ratio in 58 innings pitched, striking out 10 or more batters in a start three times and looking everything like a number one-type starter. Maybe more flashes of glory could be in Niemann’s future. This time, though, the odds look as slim as ever. Niemann has breached the tipping point, gotten one too many many injuries and finally suffered one that could prevent him from ever being the same pitcher again.
The unbelievable thing about the Rays’ run of the past several years is that none of their key starting pitchers have ever undergone Tommy JohnSurgery or any similarly debilitating surgery after cracking the major leagues. There have been injuries, especially to Scott Kazmir and Niemann, but just about everyone else has stayed almost entirely healthy. With this surgery from Niemann, the streak without surgery is done and has to make the Rays appreciate just how lucky they have been. A couple more injuries and the Rays could have never become the team they are today.