Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 3/6/12
PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. At a towering 6-foot-9, 285 pounds, Jeff Niemann is not an easy guy to overlook. But oddly enough, hes been somewhat lost in the shuffle lately when the discussion focuses on the stellar starting five of the Tampa Bay Rays. Part of that is due to the career season enjoyed in 2011 by rotation ace James Complete Game Shields, the attention heaped on Jeremy Hellickson from his AL Rookie of the Year performance and the anticipation of seeing lefty phenom Matt Moore build on the sensational foundation he built after his call-up in September. Part of that is due to the abundance of talented arms, which led to frequent offseason speculation that the Rays would deal Niemann or Wade Davis for help elsewhere on the roster or move one of them to the bullpen as camp unfolds. And part of that is due to the injuries that have sidetracked Niemann in each of the past two seasons, the most recent a strained lower-back problem that forced him to spend 40 days on the disabled list last year. So why is the 29-year-old righty so upbeat and optimistic these days, even after losing his recent arbitration case with the club in his quest to earn more money in 2012? For one thing, the Houston native had a blast during the winter traveling through the Southwest, savoring his favorite Tex-Mex cuisine, seeing snow in Santa Fe and getting rejuvenated for a new campaign. For another, hes healthy again and ready to pick up the hot pace he left off following his back injury. Im looking forward to being supporting member of a team who can carry his own weight and help the team win a lot of games, he said. As a starting pitcher, your sole job is to keep your team in the game whether its keeping a shutout going or just doing damage control and give the team a chance to win. If I can do that, then the personal goals and numbers you have in mind will follow suit. Neimann, in fact, has compiled more than his share of impressive numbers with the Rays, stats that again seem to get overshadowed along the way. Consider: His 11-7 record in 2011 gave him a third straight 10-plus victory season with a winning record for the Rays, something only former Rays ace Scott Kazmir has done (2005-2008). After an 0-3 start last year in his first four games, he finished 11-4 with a 3.52 ERA the rest of the season, in spite of the back issue that forced him out of action from May 6-June 19. His .632 winning percentage (36-21) over the past three seasons ties him for eighth-highest among all major league pitchers with at least 75 starts, and his career winning percentage of .623 (38-23) is the highest in club history for pitchers with at least 30 starts. His 8-2 road record with a 3.27 ERA in 12 starts represented the second-best road mark in the AL, and his .700 winning percentage on the road the past three seasons is second-best in the majors. The challenge for Jeff is to stay healthy, so he can make his 33 or so starts, pitching coach Jim Hickey said. He gets a little big overlooked because we have such successful starting pitching. But there are times when Jeffs got it rolling for months at a time that hes arguably our best pitcher, no doubt about it. Niemann sure looked like it from his rookie season of 2009 through 2010, when his combined record was 25-14 with a 4.16 ERA. But he also experienced his first trip to the DL in 2010 after starting out on roll at 6-0 and 10-3. He missed most of August with a right shoulder strain and struggled with his form and confidence after returning, going 2-5 with a 9.82 ERA. But he battled through the slow start and injury last year to regain his touch and become the pitcher Hickey says is capable of dominating. Hes got four or five pitches and for the most part, he can throw them for strikes, he added. And he throws from that huge, downward plane, which is something nobody else can re-create. In three years, hes won 36 ball games and that would basically cement your spot on 27 rotations in major league baseball. We know exactly what we have, and Jeff should get a lot of credit because of hes had a lot of injuries and not of his own doing. There are a lot of things that go on with him physically because of his size and the bulk things that go on with him that dont go on with other guys. Hes been really diligent in the rehabilitation process, and hes paid his dues for sure. Niemann had hoped to be paid more for his efforts in 2012. He and his agents had filed for a 3.2 million salary demand. The Rays countered with 2.75 million and won in arbitration in early February. But theres been no lingering tension or hurt feelings from the experience, Niemann says. Theres no ill will at all, he explained. Everything here is built so much on trusting relationships. When you bring the business side into it, those two things dont really mix. So it was kind of difficult, but at the same time, I know Im in a great situation here. And during the whole process, it was handled very professionally as far as both sides. The process was done right. As soon as we walked out that door, win or lose, I knew I was going to Port Charlotte in two weeks, and Im excited to be down here. Niemann heard all about the trade speculation involving him over the winter, but did his best to tune it out. Thats one of those things thats completely out of my control, he said. Theres literally nothing I can do to make a difference one way or the other. So as soon as I got that in my head, I was like, OK, Im preparing to pitch, and I really hope its with the Tampa Bay Rays. This is where I want to be. But if not, I still have to get ready, where I might be. I just looked at it like that and went about my business. Whether that business will include bullpen work remains to be seen. Niemann pitched a scoreless inning of relief in the 2010 regular-season finale, when the Rays locked down the AL East title. The fact is, should Moore make the starting rotation as expected, either Niemann or Davis will likely be sent to the pen (barring a trade) at least initially to provide a long-relief option. The Rays have used at least seven starters in each of the past four seasons, so having starting pitching depth over the course of a long season is something the club is quite comfortable with. Davis, meanwhile, has stated that he has no desire to be a reliever and looked sharp in two scoreless innings Monday against Baltimore as a starter. Niemann is taking things as they come, focusing on doing the best he can in the starts he has. On Tuesday, he allowed one unearned run in two innings of work against the Twins. Would Niemanns size make it harder for him to get warmed up quickly as a reliever? Maybe, but I dont think necessarily, Hickey said. There arent a lot of very successful relievers with that size, but right away I think of (Mets 6-foot-10 reliever) Jon Rauch. It can be done. You just have to train yourself to do that. And if Jeff did that, I dont think hed have any problem getting loose hed be the same as any relief pitcher. But its still too early to know how things will play out. Every pitcher that we have whos a starting pitcher is going to be stretched out as a starting pitcher, Hickey said. When the time comes, well simply make that decision. Hes in the mix to be a starting pitcher, and I think everybody in this building would prefer to see him as a starting pitcher. But I dont know whats going to happen. Niemann just hopes there are fewer obstacles in his path this time around. You think youve seen almost everything that baseball can throw at you and then something else happens another hurdle to overcome, he said. Hopefully now there will be fewer hurdles and more smooth sailing. And the chance he wants to stand out in the pack.
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