The Rays kept making excuses. Jeff Niemann‘s velocity was down, but he was just taking a little extra time rounding himself into form into spring. We were skeptical, but we wanted to believe the Rays, and when Niemann’s velocity crept up into the 88-89 MPH range in his final spring training start, we hoped that he was finally OK. But as it turns out, our gut feelings were right all along and Niemann is indeed hurt. The Rays placed Niemann on the 15-day DL with shoulder soreness, especially significant after a shoulder problem ended his season in early September.
Jeff Niemann isn’t young at 30 years old, but he’s not old either, and pitchers in their prime don’t just randomly lose 5 MPH of velocity from one season to the next spring training. Maybe for the first appearance or two that can be the case, as we observed with Matt Moore and Jake McGee this spring, but it was happening for too long and there no chance it was intentional on Niemann’s part or coincidental. We want to believe the stories we read in the news, but at the end of it all, common sense takes the day and it’s a reminder not to read too much into the comments of their favorite teams’ players and coaches.
With this injury, the Rays are in serious trouble. With Niemann out of their rotation, he was an obvious trade candidate, and they hoped that he could prove himself healthy and yield at least a decent prospect in return in addition to salary relief. Now, with this injury, teams have to be scared away from Niemann if they were not already from his lengthy injury history, and even if Niemann comes back strong in a few weeks, would a team really trade anything for a pitcher for whom the next injury is only a limited amount of time away? Niemann’s career is in limbo at this point- unless his last two injuries, no rotation spot and maybe not even a roster spot awaits him when he returns. With Niemann having a $3MM salary, though, you have to wonder whether the Rays will hold onto him for much longer- and even if he lasts the season, he looks like a surefire bet to be non-tendered at the year’s conclusion.
One thing Niemann being placed on the DL does do for the Rays is allow them to call up a player who may be more valuable for them in a relief role than Niemann would have been, and that’s Brandon Gomes. Gomes looked great in the spring with his back finally healthy after surgery on it derailed his 2012 season, and he has the ability to be a strong middle reliever and even be a pitcher who can give the Rays two or three innings when games necessitate it. Gomes got his well-deserved call-up from the Rays, but they just hoped than Niemann hitting the DL was not the way that was going to happen.