Heading into this season, there was legitimate debate as to who the Rays fifth starter would be. In the battle between Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez, Niemann pitched better during Spring Training, with a 2.55 ERA and a 4.25 strikeout to walk rate. Yet, the Rays went with Hernandez, presumably due to Niemann’s decreased velocity and the hope that, by pitching in the bullpen, Niemann would be able to get a couple of miles per hour back on the fastball. If he was able to increase his flagging trade value, then that certainly would not hurt either.
Instead, the transition to the bullpen was a disaster from the start. He never actually pitched a game in relief, landing on the disabled list with a shoulder injury that required surgery, knocking him out for the season. Niemann claimed that the move to the bullpen was the reason for the shoulder issues, and that he did not have enough recovery time between having to warm up and getting ready to enter the game.
The injury could not have come at a worse time for Niemann. After making only eight starts in 2012, Niemann likely needed to have an excellent season, regardless of the role, in order to remain with the Rays. After getting $3Million in arbitration last season, the Rays would likely need to find a reason to keep Niemann on the roster. Instead, he provided the Rays with nothing on their investment.
Looking ahead to 2014, it is difficult to see a clearly defined role for Niemann. Even if David Price does not return, Tampa Bay would still have seven pitchers as possibilities for the starting rotation, with four spots seemingly locked in. The fifth starter spot could come down to Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and possibly even Mike Montgomery, with Niemann as an afterthought. While there are questions as to the composition of the bullpen, his statement that converting to relief may have been been a major factor in his shoulder injury would likely preclude Niemann from a bullpen role.
Not only does Niemann seemingly enter the 2014 season as a pitcher without a role, his salary may be prohibitive to his remaining a member of the Rays. Heading into arbitration a third time, Niemann will likely, at the minimum, make the same amount he did last year. Given the Rays payroll limitations, it would seem highly unlikely that they would give that much money to a 31 year old pitcher with decreased velocity and has made just eight appearances in the past two years.
Jeff Niemann may be able to find a job somewhere on a team desperate for pitching help. It just seems unlikely that he will be in a Rays uniform next season.