Being a second-tier young arm in the Tampa Bay Rays organization is a sure-fire path to anonymity. Everywhere you look, there’s a potential all-star taking the bump. There’s the Shields/Kazmir/Garza three-headed monster at the big league level (with everyone’s favorite southpaw, David Price, waiting in the wings).
In the upper minors, there’s Wade Davis and his low-90’s/hammer curve mix, the rehabbing Jacob McGee and the impressive track record (if ordinary stuff) of Mitch Talbot. And don’t look now, but there’s another wave of absurdly gifted hurlers in the offing, led by Jeremy Hellickson, Nick Barnese, Matt Moore and Kyle Lobstein.
As such, it’s very easy for good-not-great pitchers to get lost in the shuffle (see Sonnanstine, Andy). Two guys with little fanfare who might get the chance to crack Tampa’s rotation out of spring training are righties Jeffrey Niemann and Jason Hammel.
If it feels as though Niemann has been kicking around prospect charts for half a decade, well, that’s because he has. The 6-9, 280 pound behemoth was supposed to become one of those untouchable building blocks of a contending Rays club when he was selected 4th overall in the 2004 draft, but he has compiled all of 16 frames in the bigs to this point. The $5.2 million man, signed to a major league contract, is now optionless to boot.
Niemann has dealt with shoulder maladies (including surgery during the ’05 offseason), but he’s never had much problem fooling batters with a low-to-mid 90’s heater and an occasionally plus slider. The former Owl has punched out over a hitter per inning in the minors (9.12 K/9). His control is just so-so, with 3.4 BB/9, and he once again battled a shoulder injury last April after a brief stint in Tampa.
Durability is an issue moving forward- the 26 year-old has never cracked the 150-inning mark in a season, and his stabbing arm action makes more than a few people nervous. Baseball America also notes that he “requires more time than most pitchers to get loose”, so the ‘pen might not be some panacea for his shoulder woes. Despite his warts, Niemann would rank as one of the better pitching prospects in some organizations.
Hammel is not a prospect anymore, but the 2002 10th-round pick has yet to really define a role on the club, pinballing back and forth between starting and relieving over the past three seasons. Hammel hasn’t exactly lit it up in either spot, with FIP’s of 5.26, 5.05 and 5.25 from 2006 to 2008.
His deep repertoire (low-90’s fastball, hard mid-80’s slider, mid-70’s curve and mid-80’s changeup) worked wonders at AAA (8.3 K/9, 3.16 BB/9 in 259 IP), but his lack out of an out-pitch harms him at the highest level. The big boys haven’t fished at Hammel’s off-speed stuff as much (6.08 K/9, 22.3 O-Swing%), and he does not have the razor-sharp control (4.17 BB/9) or groundball tendencies (43.8 GB%) to stick his head out above a sea of other pitching talent.
That’s not to say Hammel can’t be useful in the back end of a rotation- he’s just in the wrong organization. There’s little distinguishing a guy like Hammel from, say, Pittsburgh’s Jeff Karstens, save for opportunity. It’s just that Hammel must wage war with Price to secure a spot, while Karstens takes on the Virgil Vasquez‘s of the world.