Could the Tampa Bay Rays and Colorado Rockies Execute a Jeff Niemann for Christian Friedrich Swap?
By Robbie Knopf
It has yet to be seen whether the Rays are going to seriously pursue trading Jeff Niemann. However, it’s something that could certainly happen should Niemann not emerge victorious in the Rays’ 5th starter competition. What would a possible trade look like? Now we’re finally starting to get an idea as the Colorado Rockies are interested in Niemann, as David talked about yesterday, and while David mentioned the Rockies’ catchers as players the Rays could target, Troy Renck of the Denver Post reported that the Rays are intrigued by Rockies lefty Christian Friedrich and could desire him in a possible Niemann trade. Could a trade between the Rays and Rockies exchanging Niemann and Friedrich be something that could actually happen?
Jeff Niemann was the 4th overall pick by the Devil Rays in the 2004 MLB Draft and made his MLB debut in 2008 before finishing 4th in the AL Rookie of the Year voting in his first full season in 2009. But since then, Niemann has proven himself as nothing but an enigma. In 92 starts, 5 relief appearances, and 544.1 innings pitched, the big 6’9″, right-hander Niemann has gone 40-26 with a 4.08 ERA, a 6.8 K/9, a 2.9 BB/9, and a 1.1 HR/9 including 2-3 with a 3.08 ERA in 8 starts in 2012. Why did Niemann make only 8 starts in 2012 and average just 132 innings per season the last four years? Seemingly endless injuries including a broken bone in his leg and elbow issues in 2012, a back problem in 2011, and a series of shoulder issues before that. When Niemann is healthy and dealing, he has pitched every bit as good as he was expected to be when he was drafted 4th overall. In a 10-start stretch from June 20th to August 16th, 2011, Niemann almost singlehandedly carried the Rays’ pitching staff, going 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA and a 61-16 strikeout to walk ratio in 67 innings pitched. He struck out 10 batters in three of his starts during the streak, something he hasn’t done the rest of his career, including a complete-game 3-hitter with 10 strikeouts versus the Red Sox at Fenway Park. But then his great run ended and Niemann proceeded to almost entirely negate everything he had given the Rays in his final 7 starts of the season, managing just a 6.08 ERA and going 3-3 only because the Rays were a team on a mission that refused to go down on their way to a magical postseason berth. That encapsulates almost perfectly what Niemann is as a pitcher. Niemann’s career has been a roller coaster, fluctuating up and down and up and down, and the net result has been a pitcher who is quite effective at times but that the Rays can’t consistently rely on. And at this point, it may be time for them to move on. Niemann is 30 years old and will make 3 million dollars in 2013, not too much money but far from an insignificant amount in the Rays’ eyes. Niemann is the favorite in the Rays’ 5th starter competition, but if he doesn’t win the job, his time in Tampa Bay will be coming to an end and the Rays will be left wondering how such a talented pitcher could never put it all together for more than a few games at a time.
Lefty Christian Friedrich, who turned 25 in July, not only might be traded for Niemann but actually has a lot in common with him, although he is “only” 6’4″, 215. Friedrich was a first round pick by the Rockies back in 2008 and quickly emerged as one of their top prospects after going 6-5 with a 2.41 ERA, a 12.0 K/9, a 3.2 BB/9, and a 0.4 HR/9 in 22 starts and 119.2 innings pitched between Low and High-A in his first full pro season in 2009. But just like Niemann, Friedrich’s upside decreased considerably as arm injuries took their toll, and despite his apparent promise, he hasn’t been able to put it all together for any extended period of time since. Nevertheless, Friedrich made the major leagues for his first full season in his fifth pro season (just like Niemann) in 2012, but he did not see anywhere near the type of results he would have wanted, going 5-8 with a 6.17 ERA in 16 starts and 84.2 innings pitched before a back injury sidelined him for the second half of the season. Friedrich’s numbers weren’t nearly as bad as they looked- he was pitching his home games in the pitcher’s nightmare known as Coors Field and actually had a 3.77 ERA on the road, and he also managed a nice 7.9 K/9 and a 3.2 BB/9. In addition, he allowed a scary 1.5 HR/9, but his HR/FB was 15.4%, more than 50% higher then the 10.0% average, and his xFIP was a much more reasonable 4.63. None of this means that Friedrich is a great starting pitcher or is going to be one, but he certainly does deserve another chance, and maybe a change of scenery could be best for him at that point.
As we talked above, he stories of Niemann and Friedrich’s careers have featured a few similarities. But if you weren’t buying the comparison until now, you’ll be sold in a second. Here’s the scariest comparable between Friedrich and Niemann, their repertoires. Here’s their pitch frequencies and velocities in 2012 courtesy of Brooks Baseball. Friedrich throws harder and their pitch usage differs in few different ways, but it’s unbelievable that Niemann and Friedrich throw the exact same six pitches at vaguely similar frequencies and velocities. Their pitch frequencies are similar enough that using a chi-squared test to measure how well the two charts line up, we can only be 98.6% sure that their true frequencies are not really the same, and taking out the cutter which both of them barely threw, and we can only be 96.0% sure. We can be 99.9% sure that Niemann and Friedrich’s true velocities are different, but take out the cutter again and we can only be 98.1% sure*. Multiplying the .981 probability by the .96 mark and we can only be 94.2% sure that Jeff Niemann and Christian Friedrich are not the same pitcher according to a chi-squared test. Pitch frequencies and velocities are far from everything, but given that every pitcher is unique and we’re talking about not just two or three pitches here but five, that’s awfully uncanny. Based on that, if the Rays were to execute a trade of Niemann for Friedrich, they would essentially be trading Niemann for a younger version of him with less experience of him but slightly better stuff.
Other than the matters of age and experience and the minor difference in pure stuff, the main differences between Niemann and Friedrich are first of all that Niemann is under team control for only two more years while Friedrich is for six. Given Niemann’s track record in the major leagues, that trade-off could be worth it for both teams. However, the other issue could be a major holdup in the deal. Niemann has a checkered injury history and he’s no guarantee at all to continue to stay healthy moving forward. However, Friedrich is currently injured as his back continues to bother him, and who knows what that’s going to mean for him this season and moving forward. Before any trade happens or even is seriously discussed, Friedrich is going to have to prove he’s completely healthy. Even if Friedrich can do that, what would a trade look like? Both pitchers are major question marks, but Niemann’s stronger track record and current health means that he’s more valuable than Friedrich and the Rockies would likely have to put in at least a lottery ticket low-level minor leaguer to facilitate a deal. One interesting option could be a deal involving Niemann and either Jose Lobaton or Chris Gimenez, whichever loses out in the Rays’ backup catcher competition, in exchange for Friedrich, Rockies catcher Ramon Hernandez, and some cash to cover a portion of the $3.2MM left on Hernandez’s contract. Assuming that sort of deal would happen towards the end of spring training after Niemann failed to win the Rays’ 5th starter job, that would allow the Rays to turn two players that had no use for into a cheap and potentially useful pitcher, albeit one with quite of risk, and another catcher as they hope to improve their catching situation. On the Rockies side, they would get a pitcher in Niemann with ability to be a very effective starter if he can finally stay healthy along with a cheap backup catcher option. With the Rockies focusing on improving their pitching staff, Niemann is a low-risk gamble considering he’ll make only $3MM next year and his stock is as low as ever after an injury-riddled year, and if he stays healthy, he could be the ace of their staff.
The parallels stretch amazingly far between Jeff Niemann and Christian Friedrich and it would be extremely interesting if they were traded for one another. There are several things that would need to happen before such a trade falls into place- Niemann would have to lose the Rays’ 5th starter competition and Friedrich has to prove he’s healthy- but with a few minor pieces mixed in, a deal could really happen. In 2009, the Rays were stuck with an extra starting pitcher, Jason Hammel, after Jeff Niemann beat him out for their 5th starter job, and they dealt Hammel to the Rockies for pitching prospect Aneury Rodriguez. Hammel proceeded to win 10 games two years in a row with the Rockies, serving as a strong 4th starter on Colorado’s playoff-bound 2009 team. Though Rodriguez didn’t amount to anything, the Rays can’t say they regret that deal knowing that Hammel didn’t have a place on their team prior to the trade. The Rockies, meanwhile, were ecstatic to get themselves a solid starting pitcher at a bargain price and would love to make a similar deal now for Niemann. The price will be a bit steeper for Colorado this time around, but the potential reward is even higher considering how good Niemann has been when healthy and a deal could easily be a win for both sides.
*For nitty-gritty statistics people, the formula to calculate the chi-squared value for any cell in a table is (observed – expected)2/(expected), but that doesn’t work for pitch velocities because what chi-squared would consider a minor change, say from 90.5 MPH to 92 MPH on a pitcher’s fastball, is actually a major difference in the eyes of hitters. So instead of dividing by the expected value, which would have rendered all the results much smaller than we know the impact of the change in velocity to be, I didn’t divide by anything and just took the straight (observed – expected)2 value and calculated the chi-squared p-value from that. If I didn’t do that, almost every pitcher in baseball would look more or less the same by chi-squared because even (95-90)2/90 is only .278, a tiny value that doesn’t come close to conveying the true difference.