Even though he’s 30 years old now, the Rays continue to see in Jeff Niemann flashes of the pitcher they selected 4th overall back in the 204 MLB Draft. His fastball in the 90-91 MPH range is a shadow of once it what was, but his curveball can de devastating, his slider can make hitters look foolish, and even his splitter shows flashes of being another plus pitch. And when everything has been working for Niemann, he has been dominant just like the Rays had imagined he could be. But since he broke into the major leagues in 2008, Niemann’s career has been marred by injuries and inconsistency and season after season, the Niemann seems to find himself in another competition and the Rays are left with another decision about whether to keep him for another season or finally give up. This year is no exception with Niemann competing with Roberto Hernandez for the Rays’ 5th starter spot, with a trade quite possibly oncoming if he doesn’t win. Pitching coach Jim Hickey, though, is quite positive about Niemann’s body of work in the major leagues and how he’s throwing the ball this spring.
"“It seems like every year, Jeff’s in this situation, where he’s not guaranteed a spot and his name is out there in trade rumors. If you look at his career, there’s been a lot of setbacks — he’s come through every one of them.”“What I’m really encouraged about is, he’s throwing his off-speed stuff, whether it’s a slider or a split-finger, with a lot of vigor. Those balls have a lot of good late action. He’s spinning it real good, and if his shoulder wasn’t healthy, that would be the absolute last thing to come around.”"
It says a lot about how highly the Rays regard Niemann that they keep giving him chances, and Niemann is healthy and pitching pretty well this spring. But with Roberto Hernandez on the other side showing as good of a repertoire as when he was an All-Star in 2010 and maybe even better, everything has to click for Niemann and fast or his time in Tampa Bay could very well be ending. Niemann will look to do just that today as he starts for the Rays versus the Baltimore Orioles. Here’s the Rays’ lineup.
We could be looking at a lineup the Rays will use this season, with the only key player absent being Ben Zobrist, who’s still playing for the US in the World Baseball Classic, and the Rays are also playing the team they’ll face to begin the regular season in the Orioles. Jeremy Hellickson is also going to pitch today, but since he’ll face the Orioles in the opening series of the season, the Rays will instead throw him in a minor league game. Instead, Niemann will take center stage in this one as the Rays’ 5th starter competition continues to heat up.