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Interested Rays must take it slow
They are desperate. Jeff Niemann is available.
By JOHN ROMANO
Published July 9, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO - They are desperate. He is available. They are currently the worst team in the majors. He is probably the best pitcher in Triple A.
They have exchanged numbers, dreams and longing glances. Come up with a crappy sound track and you have the makings of a romantic comedy.
So, tell me, when do Jeff Niemann and the Devil Rays finally cuddle?
Heaven knows, it is a touchy subject. Niemann is convinced he is good enough to be in Tampa Bay's rotation. The Rays are convinced he needs a little more work. And the rest of us are convinced Jae Seo was part of some evil plot.
And you know what?
Everyone may be right.
Niemann really is better than some of the pitchers currently in the Rays rotation. But that doesn't mean he is necessarily ready to pitch in the major leagues.
Oh, he can be impressive. Standing on the mound at the All-Star Futures Game on Sunday at AT&T Park, Niemann certainly looked the part of Rays savior.
He is big and he can be intimidating. He was regularly hitting between 95-97 mph, and it was not hard to imagine those numbers on the Tropicana Field radar gun.
Niemann gave up one earned run on a double, a stolen base and a sacrifice fly, and was eventually tagged with the loss, but he knows his time is near.
In his last six starts at Triple-A Durham, Niemann is 5-1 with a 2.80 ERA.
"In theory, it makes sense to wait. And I'm sure they're doing what they think is right, " Niemann said. "I've been confident from the moment I was drafted. And if some things happened differently, I'm sure I would have already been up there.
"But things happen for a reason, and so you learn from them and keep on going."
In a way, this is an acknowledgement that much of the delay is his responsibility. Niemann lost 2004 to contract negotiations, and parts of 2005-06 to shoulder and groin injuries. His frustration is tempered by his honesty.
"It sounds weird, but going through the negative stuff has probably helped me, " he said. "I know I've learned and grown from it."
He is older than you think. Older than most of the players in the Futures Game. Older than a half-dozen players on Tampa Bay's roster, including Delmon Young, B.J. Upton, Dioner Navarro and Scott Kazmir.
Niemann is 24, and going on impatient.
The No. 4 overall pick in the 2004 draft, the Rays gave Niemann a fatter contract than the three players chosen ahead of him. They thought he was the most talented player available, and rewarded him accordingly.
Yet, while Niemann has struggled with injuries and command, others in the '04 draft have zipped past him. Huston Street was the American League rookie of the year in 2005, and Justin Verlander won the award in 2006. Jered Weaver went 11-2 for the Angels in '06, and Jeremy Sowers went 7-4 for the Indians.
Even J.P. Howell, whose radar gun readings look like a misprint next to Niemann's, has 30 big-league starts.
"You see these guys you played with heading up there, and it bothers you, " Niemann said. "You work harder to make sure you're next."
The problem is not talent, but command. Niemann trashed his changeup in May and began throwing a split-finger fastball that still needs to be refined. He also needs to work on location and being more efficient with his pitch count.
"Jeff has made great progress this year, " Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "This is his first year in pro ball that he's been able to take the ball every five days, and he has made a lot of strides developmentally.
"He's still working on a couple of specific things, but we expect him to be a fixture in our rotation for many years."
The last thing you want is for an elite pitching prospect to slow his development because he's desperately trying to hold on to his job in the big leagues.
Rushed to the majors too soon, a pitcher stops learning and starts compensating just to survive. Instead of gaining confidence and command, he is more likely to pick up bad habits and worse vibes.
Or haven't you watched Edwin Jackson?
Because his talent was so enticing, the Dodgers rushed Jackson through their farm system, putting him in a big-league uniform on his 20th birthday.
Nearly four years later, Jackson is 1-9 with a 7.23 ERA. He is out of minor-league options and still trying to harness his considerable talent.
The Rays can afford to gamble with Howell, Andy Sonnanstine and Jason Hammel. The franchise has far less invested in those pitchers, so the risk of promoting them too soon is not as severe.
The same cannot be said of Niemann. The Rays are so pitching-thin, they cannot afford missteps with one of their cornerstones. He has to make it, and he has to make it big.
Maybe his time really is growing near. Maybe, when the Rays need another starter for a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium on July 21, Niemann will get the call.
Or, maybe, the Rays will be cautious and wait until rosters are expanded in September as they did with Young and Upton last season.