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Jeff Niemann: Sell-High Candidate?

The fourth overall pick in the 2004 draft, Jeff Niemann took a his sweet time reaching the majors. Niemann, a towering 6-9, 280 pound righty, stuck out over a batter per inning on the farm, but shoulder problems stunted his progress. Entering 2009, he was 26, out of minor league options and had all of 16 big league innings to his name.

After posting a sub-four ERA as a full-time starter with the Rays in ’09, Niemann has seemingly stepped up his game in 2010. He owns a 2.54 ERA in 56.2 frames. Is Niemann finally pitching like the ace that the Rays envisioned when the team handed him a $5.2 million bonus and a major league contract back in ’04? Color me skeptical.

Last year, Niemann’s expected FIP (xFIP), based on K’s, walks and a normalized home run/fly ball rate, was 4.53. In 2010, its…4.49. He struck out 6.23 batters per nine innings in ’09, walking 2.94 per nine and posting a 40.5 GB%. This year, Niemann has traded some punch outs for a few less walks and a few more grounders — he has 5.72 K/9, 2.7 BB/9 and a 45.8 GB%. The extra ground balls appear to be the result of his going to a two-seam fastball with more sinking and tailing action.

Despite the marked decline in Niemann’s ERA, you’d have a hard time distinguishing his plate discipline stats from 2009 and 2010. Last season, Niemann got swings on pitches out of the strike zone 23.9%. This year, his O-Swing is 24% (25-27% MLB average). His contact rate was 84.3% in 2009, and 84.4% in 2010 (80-81% MLB average). Niemann is putting more pitches over the plate — his Zone% has increased from 52.1% to 53.8% (48-51% MLB average) — and his first pitch strike percentage has inched from 57.7% to 58.3%, right around the big league average. His swinging strike rate, 7% last year, is 6.6% in 2010 (8-8.5% MLB average).

The largest differences between Niemann ’09 and Niemann ’10 are in areas over which the pitcher exerts limited control. He has benefitted from a .244 batting average on balls in play. Tampa does play fantastic D, ranking fourth in the majors in team Ultimate Zone rating this season after placing third last year. But even so, that BABIP is going to regress significantly in the months to come.

Also, Niemann has stranded 84.5% of base runners, leaps and bounds above his 73.7% figure from 2009 and the 70-72% big league average. The big righty has a 7.6% home run/fly ball rate this year. That’s exactly the same as his ’09 mark, but it still seems likely that over the long run he’ll serve up a few more dingers and post a HR/FB mark closer to the 11% major leaguer average.

Jeff Niemann is a capable big league starter, a guy with the skill set of a 4-4.5 ERA pitcher. That has plenty of value to the Rays. But fantasy owners are best off marketing Niemann to fellow competitors as a former top prospect who is in the midst of a big breakout. Don’t be surprised if his results begin to resemble his 2009 work — Niemann is basically the same guy.