Niemann ready to show his stuff
Power-pitching righty looking to put questions to rest
ST. PETERSBURG -- Jeff Niemann stands 6-foot-9, 260 pounds and can throw a fastball 95 mph. Yet the perception is that he's a frail guy prone to injury.
"There's a bit of a stigma on me as far as being the injury guy," Niemann said. "And I'm doing everything I can to reverse that. The only way you can do that is to go out there and pitch every fifth day, go out there and do your job.
"I can't really blame anybody, because of the recent past. It's my job to go out there and prove [the perception] wrong to everybody. That's what I'm looking forward to doing this year."
Niemann is the Rays' top prospect, and the right-hander is closer than ever to realizing the potential that enticed the club to draft him with the fourth pick of the 2004 First-Year Player Draft.
Once Niemann arrives, it could be in a big way. He is the total package when it comes to having the pitching gifts necessary to dominate a game.
"Two good breaking balls, good fastball -- big downward plane on his fastball -- also seems to be very composed and very professional," Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey said.
Unfortunately for Niemann, nagging injuries have interrupted his path to the Major Leagues. The most severe of the injuries involved his right shoulder, resulting in surgery in October 2005 to shave the joint between his collarbone and shoulder. Being on the shelf served up a reality check to the highly touted prospect.
"It's definitely kind of puts everything back into perspective," Niemann said. "You're going to have to work for this; it's not going to be handed to you. You just can't take anything for granted, because you never know."
His inactivity also brought a renewed appreciation for the game.
"You don't know how much you really love something or miss something until it's taken away from you," Niemann said. "When you're in a hospital bed in a sling, it's taken away from you. And you have to start from scratch to get back to where you were in the whole rehab process ... you don't know how it's going to turn out in the end.
"You're not seeing daily results, you're going month to month. So it's tough being a competitive person and looking for improvement in things you do every single day. It's tough. But it's fine now. I'm out there trying to get guys out. I'm not worrying about how things feel or what the ball is doing. I'm getting guys out."
Despite Niemann's high ceiling, he won't start the season with the Rays. Hickey pointed to the right-hander's 108 Minor League innings and said, "He definitely needs more seasoning."
Rays manager Joe Maddon said Niemann could be an impact starter once he arrives in the Majors, adding that Niemann would determine whether he becomes a No. 1, 2 or 3 starter. Maddon wants Niemann to refine his pitching at the Minor League level so that when he arrives at Tropicana Field, it will be for good.
Niemann has quality breaking pitches and an ability to locate his fastball. He still needs to polish his changeup to reach where he wants to go.
"I'm just working on that changeup," Niemann said. "It's coming. I'm getting more confidence in it every single day. Once I get that, I should be more of a complete package."
Niemann explained he is working mostly to keep his arm speed on the changeup the same as when he's throwing his fastball.
"Your mind is saying, 'Throw hard,' but you're trying to throw hard, slow," Niemann said. "You confuse that in your mind. So you're trying to get that feel coming out of keeping your arm going fast -- having the ball come out slow. It's hard to do. Once you get that feel down for it, the control will kind of take care of itself."
One possible scenario for Niemann would see him report to Triple-A Durham to start the season, show that he's healthy, and get a callup before the All-Star break. Niemann won't be drawn into such speculation.
"I don't really think about that," Niemann said. "I just go out there and pitch, wherever that is. I can't control that. The only thing I control is on the mound. Wherever that is, I'm going to do my best."
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.