Niemann lowers aim, raises expectations

By Joe Smith, Times Staff Writer
Published March 8, 2008

ST. PETERSBURG - RHP prospect Jeff Niemann's second start of the spring was far smoother than the first.

Case in point: his "incidental cutter." In the first inning of Friday's 9-1 win over the Phillies, Niemann seemingly fooled OF Pat Burrell with a breaking ball. In actuality, the 6-foot-9 right-hander said it was a four-seam fastball with extra movement.

It was that kind of day for Niemann, who threw three scoreless innings, giving up no hits and two walks. For the 25-year-old, competing for a rotation spot, it was an improvement from his 33-pitch, one-inning spring debut.

"When Niemann gets his fastball down, he's a different pitcher," manager Joe Maddon.

HOWELL IN THE PEN? Maddon said he continues to be impressed with LHP J.P. Howell, who threw three innings (giving up one run on four hits). Howell is "one of the most consistent guys out here," Maddon said. Howell (1.59 ERA), who is competing for a rotation spot, could also be in the bullpen mix.

"He wants to make this ballclub, and he's going about it the right way," Maddon said. "He's at the point now where, when he's in the game, you feel like he's gonna get an out."

PRICE IS RIGHT: Top pick David Price, 22, will make his spring debut today at Legends Field in Tampa against the Yankees. The LHP said there will be nearly a dozen friends and family members there, including his parents (Debbie and Bonnie). "It'll be something that leaves a real lasting impression on the rest of my life," he said. Price, who suffered from shoulder stiffness earlier in the spring, said his arm feels "brand new.".

When Price enters the game, what if his first pitch is against Alex Rodriguez or Derek Jeter? "I really believe it wouldn't faze (Price) in the least," Maddon said. "This guy is a different cat, he's got a lot of self-confidence. He's got tremendous poise about him that's unusual for a (guy) his age."

STADIUM FAN: Add players union chief Don Fehr to those who think the Rays' proposed waterfront stadium is a good idea. "It would be nice," said Fehr, who was in town as he holds state-of-the-union talks with each team. "A lot of people have a lot of different opinions about stadiums, and I don't mean particularly here, but nationwide, and most of the time it has a very beneficial effect on the franchise and the city and the relationship between the two."

MISCELLANY: LHP Scott Kazmir threw more long toss with athletic trainer Ron Porterfield. Kazmir said afterward, "thumbs-up." Former SS Ben Zobrist started in center for the first time since high school and had three putouts. ... INF Andy Cannizaro, who spent the past six seasons in the Yankees organization (including 13 big-league games in 2006) said he's excited to show his former team that "I can still play in the major leagues." ... RHP Chris Mason, who missed two games due to a family emergency in North Carolina, was expected to return late Friday.

Joe Smith can be reached at joesmith@sptimes.com