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Rays tag Owl pitcher with top pick

Injuries don't scare Tampa Bay from picking Jeff Niemann, a power right-hander and one of three Rice players taken in top 10.

By MARC TOPKIN
Published June 8, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - What Jeff Niemann has done so far is pretty good. But it's what the Devil Rays think he can do in the future that makes him special.

The Rays like to draft players who they think can have a big impact, and they certainly did that Monday, using the fourth pick of the draft on Niemann, the Rice University junior right-hander who stands tall (6 feet 9), looms large (260 pounds) and throws hard (90-plus mph fastball).

As good as Niemann has been, going 28-4 in three seasons and leading the Owls to the 2003 NCAA championship, the Rays think he will get better.

"He's a power pitcher that still has some room to improve," general manager Chuck LaMar said. "He's unique because he's so good at the collegiate level and a lot of those guys are "what you see is what you get,' and a lot of them went off the (draft) board. This young man has a chance to improve."

Niemann was one of eight pitchers the Rays drafted in the first 18 rounds of the draft, and they are expected to add more as the draft continues through 50 rounds today.

Niemann, 21, was the nation's top college pitcher in 2003, going 17-0 with a 1.70 ERA and hitting 97-98 mph on the radar guns. Recovery from a minor offseason arthroscopic procedure on his elbow and an in-season groin strain slowed him this season and raised some questions when his velocity dropped to 87-91 mph, but he eventually returned to form.

LaMar personally went to see Niemann pitch the past three weekends and was convinced he was healthy. Niemann's performance in the NCAA tournament, when he pitched 11/3 innings in relief on Saturday, then threw a four-hit complete game shutout Sunday, seemed to prove it.

"As much as we can be sure that he's healthy, we are," LaMar said. "During the season you can't examine him, can't send him to this physician. But as far as we know, all the questions, all the research, everything we've done, we're getting a healthy pitcher. And if he's healthy, he's going to be an outstanding one."

Niemann, who grew up in Houston idolizing Roger Clemens, throws hard, but he also pitches well with a repertoire that includes a biting slider, a knuckle curve and a rarely needed changeup.

"He's truly unique because he's got four pitches and he can use those pitches, yet he's a power guy," LaMar said. "You don't see that very often that you draft a college player that has a power arm that has a chance to get better and can use the stuff that he has."

And big as Niemann is - "Big enough to do a day's work," LaMar said - he doesn't look out of place on the mound.

"If you just turned on film and watched him, you'd think he was 6-2, 6-3, 6-4," LaMar said. "That's how well-proportioned and well-built he is and what good mechanics he has."

Player development/scouting director Cam Bonifay said the Rays considered Niemann the best player available when they picked, but their need for young pitching prospects is obvious.

Niemann said he was excited to be chosen so high (Rice teammates Philip Humber went third to the Mets and Wade Townsend eighth to the Orioles) and by a team that will give him an opportunity to move rapidly to the big leagues.

"I'll get the opportunity to get up quickly and make an impact," Niemann said, "and that's definitely the goal."

Niemann, who pitched 801/3 innings for Rice, is expected to move quickly to the majors, though he probably won't pitch for the Rays this season, LaMar said.

With Rice eliminated from NCAA play, negotiations on a bonus in the $3-million range are expected to start soon, with Niemann possibly visiting later this week.

"To me, Jeff projects as a major-league team's No. 1 pitcher," Rice coach Wayne Graham said.

"He may have the biggest ceiling of any player in the entire draft. He's a steal at No. 4. I'm happy a Texan like Chuck LaMar got him!"

DEVIL RAYS PICKS

1. Jeff Niemann, RHP, Rice University, 6-9, 260

Comment: Was 17-0 as sophomore, 5-2 this season for Owls.

2. Reid Brignac, OF, St. Amant (La.) HS, 6-2, 170

Comment: Led team to Class 5A state title; commitment to LSU.

3. Wade Davis, RHP, Lake Wales HS, 6-5, 225

Comment: 7-3 this year, signed with Florida.

4. Matt Spring, C, Dixie State College of Utah, 6-2, 220

Comment: Freshman was MVP of National Junior College tournament.

5. Jacob McGee, LHP, Reed (Nev.) HS, 6-2, 180

Comment: Rated by Baseball America the second-best prospect in state.

6. Ryan Royster, LF, Churchill (Ore.) HS, 6-2, 205

Comment: Oregon State signee.

7. Fernando Perez, CF, Columbia University, 6-1, 195

Comment: Junior led Ivy League with 17 steals, batted .317.

8. John Hughes, 1B, Pearl River (Miss.) C.C., 6-2, 175

Comment: Picked in 50th round last year, 18 HRs, 70 RBIs improved stock.

9. Joseph Muro, OF, Mt. San Antonio College, 6-0, 161

Comment: Batted .404 as freshman; had six of team's 12 triples.

10. Matt Walker, RHP, Central (La.) HS, 6-4, 195

Comment: No. 88 by Baseball America; 11-1, 148 Ks, 1.56 ERA as senior

11. Chad Asanovich, 2B, Arizona State, 6-0, 190

12. Christopher Cunningham, LF, South Suburban College, 6-0, 200

13. Andrew Sonnanstine, RHP, Kent State, 6-3, 185

14. Donald Fines, RHP, Northwood (Tex.) HS, 6-4, 178

15. Kenneth Brock, LHP, Lane (Ore.) C.C., 6-0, 225

16. Garth Iorg, SS, Karns (Tenn.) HS, 6-2, 175

17. Marcus Barriger, RHP, Armstrong Atlantic (Ga.) State, 6-1, 215

18. James Scholzen, SS, Hurricane (Utah) HS, 6-2, 165

- Compiled by John C. Cotey.

[Last modified June 8, 2004, 01:01:17]

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