Rays cultivating arms cavalry on the farm

Niemann, Talbot lead the wave of starters being groomed carefully.

By Marc Topkin,Times Staff Writer
Published March 8, 2007

ST. PETERSBURG - Two of the reasons the Rays didn't feel the need this winter to improve their starting rotation will be on the mound today in Bradenton.

How Jeff Niemann and Mitch Talbot pitch in the exhibition against the Pirates doesn't really matter much, nor will their statistical totals for the spring. It's how well they do the first few months of this season at Triple-A Durham, and how quickly and convincingly they show they are ready for the big leagues, that could have a significant impact on the organization.

If things go well, as the Rays expect, Niemann and Talbot could get called up around midseason and join James Shields, who made a similar jump in 2006, and ace Scott Kazmir in an all 25-and-under rotation that could suddenly go from questionable to promising, with the potential for formidable.

"They're both very exciting," manager Joe Maddon said. "They just are."

The Rays have touted pitching prospects before, such as Matt White, Bobby Seay, Ryan Rupe and Dewon Brazelton, and their combined total of 32 Tampa Bay wins 23 by Rupe is a glaring reminder that it doesn't always work out. But Rays officials feel strongly that Niemann and Talbot can be special, middle to front-of-the-rotation types, and are handling them with care - and caution - to make sure.

"The ideal scenario from our perspective is for Niemann and Talbot to go down to Triple A and experience the same kind of success that James Shields did last year so that when we do call them up we're confident and, more importantly, they're confident that they belong at the major-league level, and that they can battle through the inevitable difficulties they are going to encounter early on," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said.

As the Double-A Montgomery pitching coach last year, Xavier Hernandez got a glimpse of what they are capable of as the talented twosome helped pitch the Biscuits to the Southern League championship with a series of dominating performances, Niemann showing he was fully recovered from October 2005 shoulder surgery, Talbot showing that trading Aubrey Huff to the Astros was a very good deal.

"Sometime on down the road," Hernandez said, "I think they will force their way into the picture."

A look at what they'll bring:

Jeff Niemann

The Rice righty, the No. 4 pick of the 2004 draft, is happy to be a pitcher again after so long feeling like a patient because of groin and shoulder problems. He returned in mid June, and it was while warming up for a July 24 start that he decided he was back to his old self. Seven innings of one-hit ball confirmed it, and he finished with a flourish, 5-1, 1.75 ERA with a .156 opponents average over eight starts, then 1-0, 2.92 with 14 strikeouts in two playoff games.

"There's no more waiting to see if I get back to normal or whatever," Niemann said. "Now it's in my hands, and I have to go out there and do it."

With a fastball regularly in the high 90s, a curve he is confident to throw in any count and a developing changeup, Niemann, 23, has the tools to be good. Add that he's 6 feet 9 and doesn't mind throwing inside, and it's clear he could be more than that.

"He's got the total package; now it's being able to put it all together," Hernandez said. "He's got the intimidation factor in his favor with his size, and he's not afraid to knock a guy off the plate. I look forward to seeing him in the major leagues for a long time at some point."

Mitch Talbot

The 6-foot-2 Utah-born right-hander likes to spend his free time flying small planes and has considered a career as a charter-flight pilot. The way he has pitched, he is more likely to be among the prized passengers.

With a mid-90s fastball leading a repertoire that includes a power changeup, cutter, curve and slider; pitching mechanics that Maddon considers textbook; outstanding command, control and composure; and an aggressive style, Talbot has the talent to be a success.

He impressed the Rays after settling in following the mid-July trade (the Rays also got Ben Zobrist), then even more in the playoffs with back-to-back five-hit shutouts, striking out 25. "He was just fun to watch," Hernandez said. "He was a dominating force."

Talbot said the trade was a blessing because it created an opportunity, and he is determined to make the most of it. "Knowing that big debut day sits in the near future is really exciting," he said. "We've got a lot of talent here. If everyone sticks around and stays healthy, I think it could be really good. It would be fun to be part of that."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8801.

Well armed?

Despite being criticized for a lack of quality starter prospects, the Rays like the way things are lining up:

Could help now: Jason Hammel, J.P. Howell

Almost ready: Jeff Niemann (right), Mitch Talbot

AAA level: Jae Kuk Ryu, Andy Sonnanstine, Chris Seddon

AA level: Jon Barratt, James Houser, Chris Mason

A+ level: Wade Davis, Jacob McGee, Matt Walker

A level: Woods Fines, Jeremy Hellickson