06/07/2004 2:24 PM ET
Rays grab Niemann first
Big, powerful right-hander projected to help soon
By Paul C. Smith / MLB.com
|Jeff Niemann went 5-2 with a 2.51 ERA this past season at Rice University. (courtesy Rice U.)
ST. PETERSBURG -- After a couple of surprises among the first three picks, the Devil Rays were delighted to find Rice starting pitcher Jeff Niemann still available in the First-Year Player Draft on Monday.
Needing pitching for the immediate future and beyond, the Rays quickly took the 6-foot-9 junior right-hander. He is projected as one of the few pitchers available in the draft who should move quickly to the Major Leagues.
"We feel he has the potential to be a fine pitcher," said Rays director of player personnel and scouting director Cam Bonifay. "We see him as a power starter. He's a proven winner with the abilities and tools to become a successful Major Leaguer. He has displayed the ability to be a high-ceiling guy. We're happy with our selection."
Niemann tied an NCAA record by going 17-0 during the 2002-2003 season, and he led the Owls to the College World Series that year. He then had offseason arthroscopic elbow surgery, but that does not concern the Rays.
"He came back from minor surgery and threw well, proving to us that he's completely healthy," Bonifay said. "He threw nine innings yesterday."
Niemann first earned a save in Rice's 6-3 win against LaMar on Saturday, then pitched a complete game four-hitter on Sunday.
"I think I answered all the questions about my health this weekend," he said. "There's been a lot of rumors going around." My elbow's been fine all year. My groin is back to 100 percent."
Niemann also suffered a groin strain in mid-April this season. That caused him to miss a month and may have limited some scouts' ability to personally see him pitch.
Not so with the Rays.
"I saw him pitch three times," Rays GM Chuck LaMar said. "He's a proven pitcher who still has room to grow. He's truly unique because he has four pitches he can throw right now."
Niemann has large hands that allow him to throw a fastball that reaches 97 mph, an 87-mph slider, a circle changeup and sharp downward-breaking curveball.
Position: RHP B/T: R/R
H: 6-9 W: 260
Born: 1983-02-28 Class: SR
HIPS & THIGHS. EXTRA-LARGE HANDS. NO WINDUP, HIGH 3/4 TO OVERHEAD DELIVERY. EXTREME DOWNHILL PLANE. FB COMFORT ZONE 90-93. SPIKED CB W/ DOWN BITE. SHARP, 2-PLANE SLIDER. CIRCLE CHANGEUP W/ FADE, DECEPTION. SHOWS COMMAND, FEEL FOR 4 ML PITCHES. INTIMIDATING PHYSICAL SIZE. STUFF TO DOMINATE GAME AT TIMES. POTENTIAL FRONTLINE RH STARTER. QUICK TO ML LEVEL.
"The amazing thing is, if you saw him pitch, you'd never know he was 6-foot-9," LaMar said. "He looks and pitches as if he's 6-3 or 6-4. He's got great athleticism."
Niemann finished the college season 5-2 with a 2.51 ERA and one save in 12 games. He pitched 57 innings and allowed 35 hits and 19 walks, while striking out 67.
Niemann said he was not sure which team would make him their choice on Monday afternoon.
"I didn't have any idea," he said. "It was exciting to hear my name called. I saw a few of the [draft projections]. You can't worry too much about that. It changes every minute."
Rice has been eliminated from the postseason playoffs but LaMar said discussions with Niemann and his agent, Casey Close, are expected to begin soon.
"Negotiations will be a challenge as they have been before," LaMar said. "We didn't take him with the intent of him being in the Major Leagues this year or next year. He'll let us know when he's ready."
Paul C. Smith is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.