2004 was a funny year for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. It was Lou Pinella’s first year managing the team and big things for expected. For a while, it looked like they would live up to the billing. The D-Rays got off to a terrible start, managing just a 10-28 record through May 19th, but then suddenly something clicked. They won 30 of their next 40 games, and as late as July 7th they were a game above .500 at 42-41. They were long out of the running in the AL East–the New York Yankees and eventual World Champion Boston Red Sox would both win over 98 games–but it looked like they were finally hitting their stride and optimism was rampant. Then the D-Rays fell off the wagon again, losing 12 of 15 after July 7th, but at the end of the year they celebrated nevertheless as they cracked 70 wins for the first time. It was a bizarre year, one filled with as much success as the D-Rays had experienced but that ended with them right about where they started. Also in 2004, the Rays selected Jeff Niemann at 4th overall in the MLB Draft out of Rice University.
Unfortunately, Niemann’s career mirrored has that 2004 season quite well. His career got off to a disastrous start thanks to a multiplicity of injuries, but then he finally cracked the Rays’ roster in 2008 and showed some promise in 2009, finishing 4th in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He was decent in 2010 and was dominant for a time in 2011, but that was basically it. Niemann was good in his 8 starts in 2012, but he has pitched in exactly one major league game since May 14, 2012. As the Rays released him, we remembered the good moments, but we knew without a doubt that Niemann had failed to live up to expectations. Potential is nice, but it means nothing if you don’t do anything with it. In his major league debut, Niemann allowing just 1 run across 6 innings, striking out 5 while walking 1. In what is thus far his last major league start, Niemann allowed just a hit across 3.1 innings, striking out 4 while walking none, before leaving with a shoulder injury. From the beginning all the way to the end, Jeff Niemann’s talent was undeniably there. But he never could bring it all together, and the chances of him ever doing so just keep getting slimmer.
Jeff Niemann is now a free agent hoping for another chance. The shoulder surgery that ended his 2013 season before it began will keep Niemann off a big league mound until the second half of last season even in the best-case scenario. Someone will sign him–despite everything, he is still too talented to be ignored. And even after his years in Tampa Bay saw his failures and imperfections reverberate as much as his successes, Niemann did not rule out returning to the Rays. Would Niemann really return? He is long overdue for a change of scenery and a chance for a fresh start. But if Niemann is willing, the Rays should bring him back. Niemann was the exception to the rule, the one talented pitcher who never came together. From July of 2009 to June of 2012, Jeff Niemann was the only Rays starting pitcher to land on the disabled list for an period of time. The Rays need that perspective. James Shields is gone and Matt Garza is a distant memory. David Price is next to depart, whether it be the next few weeks or following the season. The talent will still be there for the Rays. Matt Moore and Alex Cobb could turn into the next Price and Shields and Jeremy Hellickson is primed to rebound. Chris Archer possesses as much upside as anyone and Jake Odorizzi is itching to be the Rays’ next Rookie of the Year candidate. But the Rays need that pitcher reminding them that things will go wrong and telling them how to live with it.
Jeff Niemann will be looking for a minor league deal, and there will be literally no risk. If his rehab progresses well, the team that signs him will have additional starting depth or an option for the bullpen. If not, they’ll cut him with no strings attached. The Rays always having depth, and bringing in Niemann would be a nice way to do that. They would be giving their former golden boy one more chance knowing that there is still a chance he could turn into something. However, just as important would be the perspective he has and the way he could mentor their young pitchers. Jeff Niemann was never a team leader–his injuries never gave him the chance to be. But he is still a voice that resonates, a pitcher that has been everywhere and back and finds a way to keep going. Let him throw a bit in camp and pitch a few games at Triple-A, and even if that is all, it will mean something.