Jeff Niemann’s Tampa Bay Rays Tenure Leaves Trail of What-Ifs
By Robbie Knopf
Jeff Niemann‘s time in the Rays organization ended in a chilling parallel to the way it began: a seemingly endless wait until the expected result came into fruition. After the Rays’ selected Niemann fourth overall in the 2004 MLB Draft, it took seven months for them to finally sign him to a five-year, $5.2 million major league contract in January. Then after Niemann lost the Rays’ fifth starter job in spring training and underwent shoulder surgery in April, his Rays career only officially ended seven months later on Monday when he declined an outright assignment to Triple-A to become a free agent. Waiting seemed to encapsulate Niemann in almost every way–from the wait for him to finally crack to the big leagues to the wait between pitches as he took his time on the mound. Now the wait is over, and we are left with a result that satisfies no one.
Jeff Niemann was the correct selection at fourth overall in the 2004 MLB Draft. The Rays made their mistakes in the draft, but Niemann was not one of them. He was a right-hander coming out of Rice with the stuff to warrant consideration from the San Diego Padres at first overall. His fastball touched 97 MPH and his slider blew away hitters with his sharp break, and only arthroscopic surgery in his elbow following his perfect 17-0 season in 2003 and a groin injury in April of 2004 stopped him from going even higher in the draft than he did. Yes, the injury writing was on the wall from the very beginning of Niemann’s career. But he was so talented that he was worth the risk.
Niemann was expected to breeze through the minor leagues, but he just could never get going. After signing late delayed his pro debut until 2005, he was held to just 30.1 innings that season between a groin problem and shoulder inflammation that eventually led to surgery to shave the joint between his collarbone and shoulder. The surgery also held him out until June of 2006, but he did managed a 2.68 ERA and an 84-29 strikeout to walk ratio in 77.1 innings pitched after he returned. Finally in 2007, he tossed 131 innings at Triple-A and he managed to crack the Rays’ rotation at the beginning of 2008 with the help of injuries, ironically enough. But by that point, he simply wasn’t the same pitcher. All the injuries had reduced his fastball velocity from the mid-90’s to the low-90’s and his slider didn’t have the same devastating break. He came to the big leagues as a 25 year old expected to be a mid-rotation starter instead of the dominant pitcher who was expected to be the best homegrown pitcher the Rays had ever developed.
When Jeff Niemann was finally ready for his rookie season in the big leagues in 2009, the chances of him becoming a savior had become slim to none. However, the Rays didn’t need him to be that anymore. The wait was finally over for Niemann to become an impact pitcher in the major leagues, and even if he would not be an ace, there is nothing wrong with a strong number three starter. In his rookie year, Niemann went 13-6 with a 3.94 ERA in 180.2 innings pitched, finishing 4th in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. He struggled a little bit more in 2010, going 12-8 with a 4.39 ERA in 174.1 innings pitched, missing three weeks with more shoulder issues, but the Rays saw him getting comfortable in the major leagues and were expecting big things in his third year. And for a few weeks, Niemann turned out to be better than anyone had hoped.
Niemann went just 1-4 with a 5.74 ERA in 6 starts to begin 2011 before a back injury landed him back on the disabled list. When he returned, though, he was not the same pitcher. Niemann returned on June 20th and a couple weeks later they started a July slide that led to just an 11-15 record over the course of the month. Niemann was one of the few reasons why it wasn’t even worse. In his first 10 starts off the DL, Niemann went 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA, striking out 61 while walking just 16 in 67 innings pitched. His entire career, Niemann has three 10-strikeout games–all of them came during that 10-start stretch. Out of nowhere, everything had clicked and he had become the ace that the Rays had imagined seven years earlier. But then he fell back to earth, managing just a 6.08 ERA in his final 7 starts of the year, going from the only pitcher keeping the Rays afloat to the anchor threatening to drag them down.
2012 saw Niemann inspire plenty of fleeting optimism once again. Once again, he was excellent to begin the year, managing a 3.38 ERA with a 30-12 strikeout to walk ratio in 34.2 innings pitched, but then a line drive led to a broken bone in his leg that sidelined him until September 1st. In that September game, Niemann allowed just 1 hit in 3.1 innings, striking out 4 while walking none, but shoulder pain took him out of the game and eventually ended his season. Niemann was not a lost cause. He was doing well when he was on the mound, and if he could only stay healthy the Rays were sure he could be a major contributor to their success. But it just never happened.
The spinner went round and round, playing the same story on loop. In 2013, it finally stopped. Niemann lost out on the Rays’ fifth starter spot and quickly injured his shoulder trying to prepare for relief work. The optimism ceased–he never gave us even one game to remind us how good he can be. The Rays had him for his third and final year of arbitration, but he was to make at least $2.25 million–you can’t cut an arbitration-eligible player’s salary by more than 25%–and that isn’t pocket change by Rays standards. If he was healthy, maybe the Rays would see that as a worthwhile gamble. But as his injury problems continued, the Rays had seen enough. They kept waiting, but Niemann just never arrived.
In his last four years in the major leagues, Jeff Niemann’s innings pitched went down each season. The depressing thing was that his xFIP went down each year as well. Niemann was pitching better and the Rays couldn’t ignore that. They had stuck with him for so long, and he tantalized him with the talent he retained even after all that time. They believed somewhere in the back of their heads that his breakout was just moments away. But then the dream concluded and reality began to set in. Jeff Niemann’s career is over, leaving us with a question that we will never be able to answer: just how good could Niemann have been if he had only stayed healthy?