Almost since the day they selected him 4th overall in the 2004 MLB Draft, the Rays have been captivated by just how good Jeff Niemann has been when he has been healthy and his mechanics have been in sync. The Rays imagined Niemann as a number one starter in the major leagues, and at times he has been exactly that, most notably the stretch from June to August of 2011 where he went 7-0 with a 2.15 ERA in 10 starts and 67 innings pitched, tossing a trio of 10-strikeout games. But the Rays are tired of waiting for Niemann to produce anything remotely resembling that level of performance on a regular basis.
This spring training, he's competing with Roberto Hernandez and Chris Archer for the Rays' 5th starter job. If he fails, it will spell the end of the time in Tampa Bay. However, Niemann is ready for the pressure, delivering a sharp performance for the Rays on Saturday to help lead them to a 15-7 victory over the Phillies.
Niemann went 3.2 innings allowing 1 run on 4 hits, striking out 3 while walking none. The only blemish he allowed on the scoreboard came on a Ryan Howard home run in the 4th inning as he utilized a trio of very effective pitches in his fastball, curveball, and a cutter to keep hitters off-balance all day. Of his 11 outs, ten came on either strikeouts or groundballs. Niemann was great, and with him, Hernandez, and Archer all impressing, the Rays have an excellent problem on their hands once again: too many quality pitchers with not enough spots to put them in.
The other major story of the day was that Desmond Jennings left the game after suffering a "mild left ankle sprain" running the bases in the third inning. Luckily, though, Joe Maddon said after the game that he will be fine and should return within a day or two.
The Rays actually pounded out 15 runs on 16 hits versus Phillies pitching on Saturday, with Sean Rodriguez slamming a 2-run home run as part of the Rays' 4-run 3rd inning and Shelley Duncan drilling another 2-run blast as the Rays exploded for 6 runs in the 8th. Duncan also doubled as he received 6 plate appearances, a spring training rarity, although he did strike out 3 times. Also collecting multiple hits was Robinson Chirinos, who went 2 for 2 with a double, a walk, 2 RBI, and a run scored. Rodriguez and Duncan are both competing for playing time against right-handed pitching while Chirinos is a dark-horse for Rays' backup catcher job, and it's nice to see of them playing well and the Rays offense clicking on all cylinders.
Here are today's links:
Rawlings' Gold Glove selection process is finally going to start including some statistics! Certainly long overdue, but finally it's in place. Talking to Buster Olney in the Insider-only article, Kurt Hunzeker of Rawlings' praised Joe Maddon for helping to get the changes started. What excuse will they use to give Derek Jeter the award now?
Marc Topkin discussed pitching coach Jim Hickey's ability to communicate with pitchers talking to various current and former Rays personnel and also recounted how Hickey would not have ended up as the Rays' MLB pitching coach had Mike Buchter not suddenly decided to leave Joe Maddon's staff to rejoin the Angels.
Hickey may be the pitching coach now, but Joel Peralta may be next. Roger Mooney talked about Peralta's talents working with young pitchers and even doing some scouting in the case of Juan Sandoval in addition to his pitching ability.
Chris Gimenez talked to Bill Chastain about the changes he made in his swing down at Triple-A to help spur his recent success at the plate. Gimenez also told Chastain that he's doing everything he can to keep going strong even while knowing that the minor league option he has remaining makes it likely that he'll start the 2013 season at Triple-A.