Rookie Profile: Jeff Niemann
Jeff Niemann was a star pitcher at Rice University, where he formed part of a devastating quartet of starting pitchers along with Phil Humber, Wade Townsend, and Josh Baker. Like many Rice pitchers, he had some arm problems including arthroscopic elbow surgery in 2003, but he was still drafted in the first round in '04, fourth overall. Scouts loved his size, command, and projectability, and while his junior season (3.03, 94/30 K/BB in 80 innings) was less impressive than his sophomore season (17-0, 1.70 ERA, 156/35 K/BB in 137 innings), he wasn't considered an overdraft. He was a late sign and I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2005 book based on his college performance and scouting reports, writing that I liked him a lot due to his 92-97 MPH fastball and nasty slider, but was concerned about his health.
Niemann's pitching time was limited in 2005. He made five starts for Class A Visalia, with a 28/10 K/BB in 20 innings and 12 hits allowed, then pitched in just 10 innings for Double-A Montgomery, with a 14/5 K/BB and seven hits allowed. A pulled groin muscle and a sore shoulder kept him off the mound most of the season. He had fall surgery to correct the shoulder issue. I gave him a Grade B in the 2006 book, noting his combination of stuff and command but continuing to worry about his health status.
The shoulder problem didn't clear as quickly as expected and Niemann pitched just 77 innings for Montgomery in 2006, though they were very effective innings: 2.68 ERA, 84/29 K/BB, 56 hits allowed. He was still hitting 95 MPH and made further progress refining his curveball, slider, and changeup. I moved him back up to Grade B+, though I continued to emphasize the injury risk in the written comment.
Promoted to Triple-A Durham in 2007, Niemann threw 131 innings before his season ended early with more shoulder soreness. His velocity was down from previous standards, mostly in the 90-93 MPH range. His curveball reportedly improved, but there was some slippage with the slider and changeup. He went 12-6, 3.98 with a 123/46 K/BB in 131 innings, allowing 144 hits. In the '08 book I rated him as a Grade B prospect and a possible number three starter, though once again pointing out the injury factor.
Returning to Durham in 2008, Niemann went 9-5, 3.59 with a 128/50 K/BB in 133 innings. He was luckier on the hit front with 101 hits allowed, but otherwise his numbers were similar to the previous season. He got 16 innings of work with the Rays late in the year, posting a 5.06 ERA with a 14/8 K/BB but doing enough to get him in contention for a rotation spot this year. Scouting-wise, 95 MPH was now his peak velocity and he was more often in the 90-93 range. He adopted a splitter-like changeup, and his breaking ball was reportedly sharper than in '08. I gave him a Grade B- in the 2009 book.
Out of options, Niemann had to make the roster this spring or risk being lost on waivers. He earned his spot and kept it, ending up as one of the best rookies in the American League, with a 13-6, 3.94 record, 125/59 K/BB in 181 innings, 185 hits allowed, 4.07 FIP, certainly everything that could have been expected. Stuff-wise, his fastball peaked out at 97 MPH in a few starts, though his average was 91-92 MPH.. His curve, slider, and changeup all appear to be quality offerings.
Niemann never looked out of place this year, and clearly benefited from having two full years of Triple-A experience under his belt. The Rays were certainly careful not to rush him too quickly, granted they had more flexibility to do this than most teams do. Niemann is a quality major league starting pitcher, and the main risk for him remains injury. Indeed, if you look at his velocity data, you will note that his velocity declined late in the year, likely a sign of fatigue. This tracks well with a rise in his WHIP in September, granted the perils of granular sample sizes. 2009 was his career high in innings pitched, and given his previous health problems it would not surprise me to see him have some physical issues in 2010.
If he can avoid major health problems, he seems like a guy who could have one really outstanding season around age 30 or so, with several other years of above average performance before and after. I like him a lot. I just worry about his arm holding up.