Baseball season is upon us, and the AL East is as competitive as ever. Any of the five teams could legitimately win 90 or more games, making it the most formidable division in Major League Baseball. I’ll be going position by position on a daily basis, analyzing how the Rays are situated heading into the season, and how they compare to the rest of the division at each spot. Today, lets take a look at the #5 pitcher on the Rays pitching staff.
The final spot in the Rays rotation is the only one up for grabs this Spring. While a number of names are casually thrown into this mix, there are only two pitchers that have a legitimate shot at coming away one of the starters. And even amongst these two pitchers, one has a distinct advantage. Roberto Hernandez has the upside to be a dominant pitcher for the Rays. The problem is that he hasn’t been one in several seasons. There is a good chance he will get a couple starts this season as a fill in, but because of several factors, he won’t leave camp as the Rays #5 starter (barring a trade or injuries).
Jeff Niemann is the clear favorite to become the #5 pitcher for the Rays this season. Niemann has the stuff and pitchability to be a #3 pitcher in most rotations. His main weakness is an inability to stay healthy. In four seasons with the Rays, Niemann has only averaged 132 innings pitched per season. His career high of 180 innings pitched came in his first full season. He suffered a bit of bad luck in 2012, missing a large portion of the season after a line drive fractured his fibula. Once he made his return, shoulder pain shut him down for the remainder of the season.
Outside of remaining healthy, Niemann’s only other major weakness is an inability to pitch deep into games. He will give the Rays around six innings in most starts, but rarely pitches much further into a game than that. Given that he is battling to be the #5 pitcher, six innings while giving up two or three runs will more than suffice, as that is a typical Niemann performance.
Niemann is armed with a fastball that he can run into the mid 90′s, but sits in the low 90′s. Because of his tremendous height, his pitches travel towards the plate at an incredible downward plane that is difficult to square up. When he gets this pitch down in the zone, he is quite effective. His curveball is an above average pitch that has a ton of vertical movement. In recent years, he has moved away from his slider, and depended more on this curveball which is a nice strikeout pitch when finished down in the zone. He continues to mix in a slider, but not as often, and typically when he is looking for a strikeout versus righties. Niemann, also, throws a split finger fastball, which is one of his go to pitches versus lefties.
How do the Rays rank at this position compared to the rest of the American League East?
- Ricky Romero Toronto
- Jeff Niemann Tampa Bay
- Ivan Nova New York
- John Lackey Boston
- Jair Jurrjens Baltimore
Ricky Romero had a hideous 2012, but go back and look at his seasons prior to last year. He has been one of the better left handed pitchers in baseball, and I’m going out on a limb thinking he will return to that level. Nova burst onto the scene in 2011, contending for the Rookie of the Year award. Unfortunately for him, 2012 was a major step backwards in his progression as a MLB pitcher. John Lackey was one of the better pitchers in baseball, which landed him a big contract with the Red Sox. He’s been terrible ever since, and underwent Tommy John surgery towards the end of 2011. He has upside, but it’s been a long time since he has pitched well. Jurrjens has battled frequent injuries over the past few seasons, including a shoulder injury in 2010 that has led to a decrease in velocity. He, too, has some upside, but quite a bit of risk as well.
Niemann’s success revolves around staying healthy. If he does, expect a strong season out of him. In limited action in 2012, he struck out more hitters and induced more groundballs than he had previously in his career. Was this him maturing as a pitcher, or a blip on the radar? Regardless, he will pitch well this season, when he pitches.
My prediction for Jeff Niemann in 2013: 13-6 3.75ERA 170IP 145K 50BB