Results tagged ‘ Jeff Niemann ’

“Lady Luck, You Got Some Explainin’ to Do”

Sometimes I think we forget how lucky this Tampa Bay Rays team has been on the injury front over the past few years. Sure we have had untimely injuries that set this team back a tad, but not since their 2009 season have the Rays had their rabbit’s feet and luck slap them in the face like this. It’s been a long time since this Rays franchise has looked more like a M*A*S*H unit than a competitive baseball team.

It befuddles me a bit that we have a winning record and yet the boo-birds have come out not only targeting the wrong people, but also forgetting injuries are a part of the game, that is why there is a DL and call-ups to the majors. Even before Rays skipper Joe Maddon and Rays Head Trainer Ron Porterfield got Rays starter Jeff Niemann to the Visiting Clubhouse last night in Toronto, fingers began wagging and spit and vinegar ruled the roost. Heck, it not so long ago a Rays team dealt with this same rash of unforeseen injuries and watching players fall like Dominoes…I would think we would have learned a bit of ranting restraint since 2009.

Back in 2009 12 different Rays hit the DL at one time or another and amassed a hysterical number of 752 games missed over that 162 game season. Some spent as little as 6 games on the pine ( BJ Upton/shoulder surgery), while others, like the trio of RP Jason Isringhausen (137 games), RP Troy Percival (119 games) and OF Fernando Perez (130 games) spent most of the season either on the mend or recovering from some sort of surgery. This 2009 season was also the Rays season Carlos Pena missed 25 games due to a badly placed ( cough, cough) CC Sabathia pitch inside with a duo of fractured fingers.

The 2012 season is starting to become a bit of a mirror image of that 2009 injury riddled team, and I think we have not seen the end to the injury bug. How weird is it that both this season’s squad and the 2209 ( June 16-26) edition had 8 players on the DL. Downright freaky to consider that team lost so many “games” to their injured comrades, and this 2012 team as of game time tonight have banked 153 games in the DL bucket this season, not counting Jeff Niemann’s possible 40-60 game estimate.

For some reason we all forgot that this Rays team might have finally used up all their “good luck” fairy dust and for the first time since 2009, the Rays well-oiled machine has broken down not from dis-repair, but from the possible stress and strain each team endures over that 180 days during a MLB regular season. Do not blame Porterfield, Paul Harker or Kevin Barr.

I am sure Porterfield’s training room at Tropicana Field will be re-named “ M*A*S*H 33701” as the Rays players begin to arrive to the Clubhouse on Wednesday. Funny how as soon as Niemann left the contest there were cries and yelps about the Rays Training staff and their Strength and Conditioning. Suddenly the same group of Rays personnel who are considered by many to be one of the best in MLB were being thrown under a speeding bus without even a slight bit of fact or visualization to promote any wrongdoing or mis-diagnosis.

I truly do not know how Niemann threw even a warm-up pitch last night without grimacing in pain after getting hacked by that drive. That determination to even try and stay in the game is a testament to the true guts and courage of this team as a whole. I bet each and every player , especially those nagging injuries they hold to themselves and that we know nothing about. But injuries small or large come with the salary, and sometimes letting them fester and linger are not worth the price paid in the end. Some players might even be playing right now on borrowed time, and that is not a good thing.

Sean Rodriguez has a lingering strained pectoral muscle. Think about that injury for a second. S-Rod has a strained muscle in the chest region of the lead arm in his bat swing. Add onto scenario the blatantly obvious condition of throwing the ball diagonally across his body from the Hot Corner and you have to either be impressed or think Rodriguez is crazy to set himself up for a possible long term injury. Recent errors might be more due to trying to play through the injury than his throws follow through. I seriously do not know why S-Rod is taking the punishment and not resting himself, but then again, the drive and resiliency shown right now by just this one Rays speaks volumes to the commitment of every one on this 25-man roster.

There is no conspiracy, no covert medical pandemic or lack of adherence to conditioning drills that have led to this recent outburst of injuries. The plan truth is this Rays team has been dodging huge bullets and taped up more than a few “walking wounded” over this season and some injuries go under the radar until they burst out into the daylight.

Sports fans today want to point a finger, find a viable scapegoat to focus blame and their anger towards, and sometimes the wrong people get caught in the cross-hairs. How many people know Porterfield last night called the local NBA team, the Raptors last night trying to find an over-sized set of crutches to make Niemann’s pain a bit more bearable. You can bet Porterfield and his staff including Strength and Conditioning Coach Barr have put in plenty of overtime and extended hours mending, taping and even discussing ways this team can keep its members on the field, even for a minimal of innings or effort.

 But still the finger wag and the voices get louder and louder. Maybe the Rays Republic needs to point their finger in another direction. Possibly there is another culprit who deserves your spit and vinegar. Possibly the bottle of luck the Rays have been pouring out since 2009 finally ran out of magic. Maybe we should point our fingers to the person who is suppose to keep it full. Lady Luck, as Ricky Ricardo once said, “You got some explainin’ to do! ” 

Rays Need to Wipe the Tarnish Off Their “Golden Arms”

Coming into the 2012 Major League Baseball season I do not think there was anyone connected with the game who had any major concerns about the Tampa Bay Rays starting pitching or their overhauled Bullpen. Most proclaimed them to be a pitching staff that was a year older, but considerably wiser beyond their years. From the only over 30 member of the starting rotation James Shields to rookie Matt Moore, the Rays were definitely a young staff to be wary of this season.

But how reality can change. How quickly things can go sideways, produce holes and show the Rays have a few situations, and not all of them have immediate solutions. Things looked up quickly for the Rays “Golden Arms” after sweeping the 2011 American League East champs, the New York Yankees at home. Quickly people were singing the praises of this young bunch of hurlers who seemed to have the midas touch, the “Golden Arms” moniker seem appropriate. Even after a hiccup of only winning one of three against the favored Detroit Tigers, the Rays seemed destine to head into the land of the Lobster and chowder with confidence and a chance.

Suddenly over a 3-game spread the Rays starters looked vulnerable, giving up extra base smashes that usually find a glove, or produce outs. Even though pitches were being placed perfectly in their quadrants, bats met ball almost like they knew it was going to be delivered there, without much sweat or guessing. Instantly eyes and fingers began to watch these Red Sox for clues or suggestions of a more clandestine reasoning for the Rays sudden fall from pitching grace. In an instant the once mystical Rays seemed bewildered and confused as speculation ran rampant that their secret formula had been deciphered and pilfered producing 3 straight dizzying losses to their divisional rival Boston.

The Rays seemed plagued by an aspiration more towards mediocrity than their acclaimed meteoric prediction. In a flash the Rays tumbled from the grace of promise to fall 0-3 and closer to the .500 mark before their ace, James Shields delivered them from the folly of losing all 4 contests to these Bostonians. Some say the difference was a change of habit, a visual game of hide and go seek where Rays catcher Jose Molina would do his best impression of hiding the corner and seeking the calls on the outside corners. Even if the strike zone did gain a few inches, it went both ways, but it did give Shields and the Rays a fighting chance.

You want to dissect the Rays starting staff and look for a fundamental reasoning for the Boston meltdown, but you will not find it. Tongues wagged that Moore was tipping off his pitches, but the same game outcome and hit barrage beset veteran hurler David Price and 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson. How could a staff that stifled the Yankees less than a week before suddenly fall flat against a divisional rival they had winning history against in their ballpark. It is not like the Rays came into Boston complacent or sporting a superior record, somewhere the dike developed a leak and not until Shields hit the hill did it get plugged with success.

Some might contribute this strange quandary to the fact of a plethora of afternoon contests on this road trip, but that is the easy answer. The hard answer is this young staff is still maturing at times and can be vulnerable. The real answer is Hellickson and Moore have the abilities to shut down any American League offense, but if their control ticks even an inch off the plate, the Home Plate Umpire might not give that extra inch. That comes with experience and knowing which Umpire might be open to balls skipping the corners and who runs a tight strike zone. Worst thing is on any given night that variable could change without warning or hint.

We all know already if Shields and Price have the motors revving and are on point, only they can cost themselves a victory. Worst thing that could happen to the Rays is one of these two going down, or experiencing even a short span of wildness or ability to sit guys down via the outside corner called third strike. There is a gap between the experience levels of these two and the duo of Hellboy and M&M. Not even sure the tallest member of the silent assassins, Jeff Niemann can put himself into that middle ground at times. Even though the 6’9” Niemann can show the skills of an ace during his streaks, when he is off his game, weird things happen. You might consider Niemann a liability compared to the other 4 starters on this team, but when he is in his groove and popping balls into the strike zone, he looks more like a #3 starter than the back end option at #5.

The Rays starters just have to wipe the tarnish off their “Golden Arms” and again show the wealth and worth of their abilities to get the Rays close games that their offense can overcome and post wins. The Boston series was a debacle by any sense of the word, but this Toronto series might be the true test for the Rays starters. If they can harness themselves and post a winning edge in this first series in Canada, it could be a great launching pad into their home stand and again having people feel “golden” about this starting staff.

Time For The Rays To Act Like Contenders, Not Morgue Meat

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. Guess that is the only way to describe the scene that played out in front of me and the rest of the Nation after the fifth inning today. There is no other team that I hate seeing the Tampa Bay Rays lose to than this Boston bunch. And losing 2 out of the first 2 to begin the 2012 seasonal series, that just makes my stomach turn, burn and totally feeling like imploding.

I am not going to call anyone out for this loss because it has been 30 minutes and I am suppose to focus on the next day’s game now, but there is still some residue on my shoes and it doesn’t smell like roses. I tried to drum up the confidence game yesterday in my post by stating we have these types of losses during a long 162-game season, but against a divisional foe, the loss hurts double in my heart and in the standings. Worst part of it all is that this game seemed well in hand, then the mighty hand of something purely evil and nasty plucked the stingers off the Rays one-by-one until it seems our eyes glazed over from disbelief.

These types of losing streaks can be endured, but not when it gives glee and happiness to fan base that truly wishes and prays that the Rays choke on their pride and emphatically drown in their own tears. The scene on the Fenway grass today after the 5th inning seemed more likely to be one played out on a sappy medical drama where the patient comes into the facility in perfect health, has a great prognosis then somehow a severed jugular burst forward and instantly we were in a life or death struggle with no angels in the wings to pluck us from the obvious. The Rays right now look more like morgue meat than contenders, and that has to change…stat!

I so want that last sentence to be untrue, but there are fragments and obscure pieces missing that would make this whole enchilada complete. Some members of the pitching staff seem so at ease and “ in the flow”, while others seem to be going through the proverbial motions and not delivering up quality or quantity yet this season. It is frustrating when you have seen and felt the possibilities of this 2012 Rays team, then they stumble, fumble and look more like a pre-2007 Rays squad.

But here is where we do our work as fans. It is our job right now to keep the faith, push our chests out and take the insults and sharp criticism of this team’s downward turns and stand firm, stand erect, and above all stand united. For if even one of us falters in our belief and hope for this team, the dam could spring a leak and that will lead to a river of deplorable chaos and false propaganda with a Bulls Eye painted on each member of this team.

As the Rays unite as a team, solid in their goals, commitment and belief in themselves as individuals and a collective team, we must also stay the course, throw up the encouraging even in the face of the disenchanting truth. It is time to either bail out the boat and know survival is in sight or look in the distance for the school of media sharks awaiting any wobble or bob from this team and their potential.

Niemann Should Claim the Rays Fifth Slot

So the Tampa Bay Rays are going to draw this drama out for one more day. Seems kind of silly since we basically know that barring a possible trade, the team will probably hoist the “Tall Texan” Jeff Niemann as their fifth starter for the regular season. His main opponent, Wade Davis has basically conceded the decision after a bad outing in his last Spring start. With Davis’s comments after his start on Sunday, you would have thought the decision was already made and he was eager to hit the Bullpen and come out swinging this season in the latter innings.

But do not think a little competitive edge did not favor Niemann since he has clearly been in this position before and has played his part staying consistent on the mound this Spring, trying to provide ammunition for name being selected for the last rotation spot. It was only a few seasons ago Niemann and Jason Hammel were in different minor league games that were to decide the fifth spot, but Hammel ended up being traded to the Colorado Rockies at the conclusion of that day’s activities, which made that Springs decision moot.

In all honesty, Niemann has done nothing this Spring to fall from grace with the Rays staff. Even his refusal of a small raise and going to salary arbitration over a measly $500,000 ( he lost) was viewed as a “business decision” and the Rays front office holds no animosity towards his Winter decision. In hindsight, the fact Niemann had the confidence and internal constitution to stand up to the Rays in arbitration. Some say arrogance can be the best gift for a pitcher.

In Niemann’s corner is the fact he has posted 3 straight 10+ wins seasons as a starter. Only former Ray Scott Kazmir can say the same. How soon we all forget Niemann started 2011 0-3 in 4 starts before he went 11-4 in 19 starts the rest of the season.  Add onto this the fact Niemann has been an amazing “road warrior” for the Rays holding a .700 winning percentage (21-9) over the last 3 years, which is second best in the majors. Suddenly you see a big hidden part of Niemann’s success for the Rays.

But could Niemann or Davis be headed elsewhere, and the current decision is being withheld as the Rays take a last chance last-minute offering for someone currently “out of country”. It is pretty common knowledge by now that the Rays covet Oakland A’s catcher Kurt Suzuki as a great addition to their backstop corp and want to bring him into their fold. Problem is, neither Niemann nor Davis really whets A’s GM Billy Beane’s whistle, but with a delayed announcement and the Athletics playing over the International Dateline in Japan, maybe the time difference is Rays Executive VP of Baseball Ops Andrew Friedman’s last grasp to try to land Suzuki.

Add into the equation that fact that Rays Manager Joe Maddon has set a few parameters as to who would get the “ 5th gig”, and with Davis’s ERA sitting at an uncomfortable 4.91, barring a trade or possibly Niemann getting knocked out by a crossbeam in the Rays Clubhouse, the decision seems a bit moot.

One of Maddon’s prerequisites was “ who can help us win game early on in the season”. Not sure if either of the two pitchers have distanced themselves in this category, but if you take into consideration Maddon second criteria of “ who can be effective in the Bullpen”, then Niemann is the guy who will inherit the 5th slot. If Niemann had great reliever qualities, he would have at least had a reserved seat in the Bullpen in October, but he was not even on the Rays post season roster.

Not knocking Niemann as a reliever, but the guy tends to need more time to warm-up, and as a reliever, your time is extremely limited. Add onto that the fact Davis has already commented he would go to the Bullpen and “kick butt”. Even based on that kind of comment by Davis, you get the honest feeling that the decision has already been made in at least one player’s mind.

Maybe this is a blessing in disguise for Davis who sometimes tends to hide some of his velocity on the hill, keeping it in reserve if needed. In the Bullpen, he can let it rain strikes and bring it full-bore and I bet Niemann will be the first guy to greet him on the dugout steps.

Some will say Niemann is the more polished of the two, but he has also shown a quality of getting fatigued and injured at the most important moments over the last few seasons. Still, Niemann boasts a .639 winning percentage over the last 3 MLB seasons (min 75 starts), and that is currently 8th best in the majors and  is 27 points above Rays southpaw David Price (.612 percent). That is a considerably nice “stat” egg to have in your basket when consistency and winning are huge factors in this decision.

It was really Niemann’s position to lose this Spring. Barring an injury over the last few games or a trade out of leftfield, he owns the 5th slot in the Rays rotation. The deeper you look into consecutive good outings and subsequential winning streaks, Niemann stands head and shoulders above Davis for that last rotation spot. But then again, there are not many who stand taller on the hill than the Texan.

E-10, Photographer Throw High and Wide on Rays Spring Photos

If the recent Tampa Bay Rays Team Spring photos is any indication, I am starting to think the Tampa Bay Rays 2012 season is going to be more back to the basic, nothing flashy or disrupting to the status quo of the “Rays Way”. Maybe I was anticipating a re-visit or renewal of the grandeur and glamor of the Rays 2010 Spring Team photos that took my breath away, and made you wanted to see more of them.

2010 Evan Longoria Photo

If the 2012 Team Spring photos are any indication, this season is going to be a bare bones, nose to the grindstone, no huge frills and spills kind of season…not that this is a bad thing, maybe I set my expectations too high this season. But then again, it is Spring and hope has to grow eternal and unbridled.

Sure the 41 photos recently uploaded to the Zimbio webpage by photographer Jonathan Ferrey had some unusual and classic poses within their compositions, but somehow a large glove-full of the Rays possible 2012 roster personnel missed their camera time with the Zimbio photog. At least we know Rays 3B Evan Longoria got a few extra shots. Maybe dating a Playmate does have some photo advantages, but a total of 13 individual photos? Longo is one of the cornerstones of this team’s offensive and defensive foundations, but so many other cogs of the machine are missing, lost their possible chance in this annual Rays ritual of Spring.

Jeff Salazar

Sure C Mark Thomas and OF Jeff Salazar who are both Rays Spring Training invitees got their respective mugs/poses on a photo, but missing were a huge slice of the Rays other core players like starter Wade Davis, Rays Bullpen members JP Howell, Brandon Gomes, Joel Peralta, Jake McGee, and newcomers Burke Badenhop and Josh Lueke.  Is it even imaginable that each and every one of these players somehow missed the vocal call for photos? Am I the only one who feels it is purely insane that 2011 American League Rookie of the Year Jeremy Hellickson would have, could have somehow missed his 2012 photo chance, or was it a captive selection of players designated by the Zimbio photographer?

I have not even begun to scratch the surface of the possible MLB bolo report put out since the “Legend” Sam Fuld, infielders Jeff Keppinger, Ben Zobrist, and Eliot Johnson must have mis-placed their “memos” possibly on their photo chance. Even more disappointing is that Carlos Pena somehow missed the photo cut…Really?

Want another firm kick in the proverbial teeth, the only catcher featured in the photo shoot was Jose Molina, and that was only for 1 photo. Heck even Reid Brignac got more photos than Molina, and he is not guaranteed a starting slot. I know there is a growing army of female Rays followers who would love to see a recent photo of Robinson “Honey Nut” Chirinos or even Jose Lobaton, but they will have to drive to the Charlotte Sports Park and take their own this Spring.

Maybe I got used to the flash and glamor set forth by those 2010 photos that had every single member of the Rays squad, including the Coaching staff in some sort of pose or hitting posture with the added sun flare somewhere within the photo framing. Maybe I was expecting something grand, a statement by the Rays this season as they start their 15th season.

But there were some positives in this set of photos of the 2012 Rays. We got to actually see what top Rays prospect Hak-Ju Lee will look like in a Rays uniform. We already know Lee can dance, and his bat has some magic in it, but seeing him in the Rays whites definitely makes you eager and hoping for the Rays future shortstop to make some additional magic happen during his minor league season so we can see him in that uniform possibly in September.

Maybe I am nitpicking here a bit, but I have come to expect more, especially after that grand and fabulous 2009 Spring photo package. Heck, even Rays skipper Joe Maddon had a possible glamor shot in 2009 that to this day might be one of the best photos of the Rays newly extended Manager.

I possibly wanted something again to “pop” off the screen of my computer, wished for another set of dynamic photos taken that would get my blood pumping, the sweat beading around my cap and the Rays Republic making photo copies of the team photos for signatures in the future. Not sure if any of these Rays Spring photos will be seen on the sidelines before games in 2012. Certainly doubt it (shudder).

Will Davis Wade into the Bullpen Pool?

The one thing that always seems constant in baseball is change. I know that sounds more like a comedic riddle you might hear on a sit-com, but it is too true in baseball. The game is an ever-changing microbes always feasting on the element of change and forcing its hand whenever possible. So why doesn’t Tampa Bay Rays starter Wade Davis go with that flow and at least have an open mind to possibly taking a short-term stint in the Rays Bullpen. What is the worst thing that can happen?

For one thing, he could like it and not want to ever go on that every 5 day ritual. Seriously, the balking and chatter now coming out of the avid bear hunter sounds a lot like the same vowel and constants that were uttered by former southpaw J P Howell when the Rays brought up the same idea back in 2008 after a few horrendous outings. So far the change of rituals seemed have done wonders for Howell.

Sure it will take some getting used to, and adjusting of both your schedule and workout regimen to get you into a habit of getting your arm loose in ½ the time, and basically being “on-call” for all 162 games. But it beats the alternative of alienating a Coaching staff that likes your work ethic, applauds the way you approach the game by suddenly not wanting to embrace a change that could benefit not only you, but the Rays chances over the course of a season.

And maybe the Rays want you to take that lone spot of long reliever that usually is vested to a player who has a starter mentality, but also has the cunning and wilds of a reliever. Buck up bow hunting camper, you got the intestinal fortitude and the determination to not only own this spot, but make the position your own, and possibly find yourself destined for another path that could reward you greatly in the future.

It is not like the Rays are trying to convert you into the closer role like they did Esteban Yan or Seth McClung and you find yourself in a fun house of emotions and transitions trying to switch back and forth from starter to reliever to starter again before your arm either falls off, or your confidence hit empty. Look at it as a blessing, a bit of a seasonal vacation that could again produce a starting gig if fellow fishing/hunting buddy Jeff Niemann falls off the healthy wagon again in 2012.

Take it as a time to explore an option that might surface again in your latter baseball years and see if it has a nook or cranny that fits your style of baseball before spouting off or acting like the upset teen on that 16 hour trip in the backseat. I have faith in you Wade. You have shown time and time again to adjust on the mound between innings, the Rays are now asking if you might adjust through a course of a month to accept a new assignment, a new adventure, a possibility of a change in your long-term baseball livelihood.

Who knows, you might get out on that mound in the bottom of the 6th or 8th inning with a lead and just as quickly the competitive juices within you take over and you strike out the side and flash a smile on the way to the dugout rail. Just give it a chance. It is not a gurgling hot tub that will burn you up, it is a switch in-game situations and mannerisms. Heck, think about that 600 pound bear you bagged a few years ago and go after each hitter with authority if it helps you get the job done.

Just wade into the pool, check the water out and see if you can make the adjustments, ritual changes and quick muscle relaxation needed by today’s reliever corps. If you have any problems, there is always that “dude” down near the end of the Bullpen who also fought kicking and screaming when he first made the move to the Bullpen. Now you can’t keep J P away from the Bullpen. Try it for a bit, you might possibly find out it suits you better than starting, and has less stress and still pays you the same….kind of like a “win-win” situation.

Rays Fan Fest Autograph Times

I promised a few of you I would post the Tampa Bay Rays Fan Fest autograph participants and their relative time online as soon as humanly possibly. Well, they came out earlier today and of course I was in the middle of working for a living. So without further ado, here is the tentative autograph time for the Rays players to sign at this years Fan Fest.

Do not forget, if you want to participate in the Exclusive Signing Opportunity ($200-500), you have until midnight tonight to make your purchase for this special event away from the usual hustle and bustle of Fan Fest.

Table 1 Table 2 Table 3 Table 4 Table 5
10:30 – 11:30 a.m. Ryan Reid Tim Beckham Jeff Keppinger Ricky Orta Kyle Farnsworth
11:30 – 12:30 p.m. Brandon Guyer Burke Badenhop Robinson Chirinos Brandon Gomes Matt Mangini
12:30 – 1:15 p.m. J.P. Howell Matt Joyce Wade Davis Sean Rodriguez Jose Molina
1:15 – 1:45 p.m. Evan Longoria Don Zimmer Jeremy Hellickson (open) (open)
1:45 – 2:30 p.m. Chris Archer Carlos Peña Desmond Jennings Alex Cobb Matt Moore
2:30 – 3 p.m. B.J. Upton (open) (open) James Shields David Price
3. – 4 p.m. Luke Scott Fernando Rodney Cesar Ramos Jose Lobaton Josh Lueke
4. – 4:45 p.m. (open) Nevin Ashley Romulo Sanchez Stephen Vogt Craig Albernaz
** Schedule subject to change

Anxiously Awaiting the Rays Report Date

I do not know about you, but the next 14 days will surely seem like trying to get that last drop of molasses out of that stupid bottle. For as the climax and celebration of Super Bowl is finally beginning to get out of our ears and thoughts, now the baseball world begins to get their Spring priorities right and think of the American Pastime. With the last bit of cool crispness in the air, it will be time to pound a few dozen balls into newly oiled mitts and try out a few new pitch variations, and hopeful improvements.

14 days until the Tampa Bay Rays again try to mess up the status quo among the American League East. 14 days until we see what Rays starter Jeff Niemann has up his sleeve to make this team fall in love with him again and possibly jettison another piece of the Rays rotation puzzle to a destination unknown. Or will the magic that Rays rookie Matt Moore displayed in late September and October translate into a slot on the MLB roster, or a few months vacation in Durham until Niemann’s first anticipated soreness issue. This could only start a countdown for Rays SP Wade Davis too as teams are watching his every move as the Rays are surely going to have to make at least 1 painful starting pitching decision before the Rays Opening Day on April 6th.

14 days until we find out if new Rays RP Fernando Rodney will take a moment with Rays starter James Shields and try to get a fresh prospective and grip on his Change-Up. Shields would seem to be the perfect candidate for Rodney to chum up to considering his variable speed pitch is considered one of the best in the majors.

14 days until we see if the off-season was the time needed for Rays leftie J P Howell to again become “the Dude” providing long curves and a renewed vigor and vitality to his fastball, possibly topping 89 MPH by the season’s start. I truly hope and want Howell to have a revitalized Spring, or he might be re-named “ The Dud”. Along with Howell, there is considerable chatter on if the Rays will again hold onto 3 southpaws which could mean a trip to the minors or elsewhere for fellow left-handers Cesar Ramos ( no options) and Jake McGee (1 option).

14 days until we see who out of the Rays young backstop stable of Jose Lobaton or Robinson Chirinos want the Rays back-up gig and produce defensive gems and offensive dreams from a position with loads of talent, but lacking in MLB catching experience. That will also be the moment we see just how much in the gas tank for “the other Molina” Jose. Will he excel at the Rays weak spot in the batting order, or become another Rays casualty destined to watch the young bucks get the starts while he mends.

14 days until we see the sophomore effort of Hellboy take place. Will he again find his demonic rhythm that had everyone in baseball envying the upstart Rays? Can Hellboy improve on his walk to strikeout ratio, and more importantly improve on his ground ball ratio to let his great defense behind him help him gain victories and accolades. Will the young right-hander finally become comfortable in his 3-slot knowing he can be a series exclamation point behind the two top aces, Shields and David Price.

14 days until we see if Price can gain some consistency by not trying to change grips during a game and totally trusting the grips that got him to points in games without diverting from the game plan by toying with his art. 2012 will also be the season where Price can either gain a foothold on immortality by posting numbers worth of his new salary and being that stop gap starter that should be the Opening Day starter and player who can get that needed win.

14 days until we can see if the “B-brothers”, RP Brandon Gomes and ex-Fish Burke Bradenhop can secure roster spots with an impressive Spring. Also on our minds firmly in 14 days will be the talent escalation of the 2 “Alexs”, Cobb and Torres. Each throwing from a different side, but each wanting a roster slot and a chance to show their worth to the Rays this Spring. Coming into the Spring it seems Gomes has a clear shot, but as we all know, things can change before the calendar changes to April. All 4 players mentioned in this paragraph have minor league options, and the Rays could play a game of “mix-and-match” early on during the season with any of the 4 spending time both in St. Petersburg and Durham.

Also firm in the Rays Republic’s mind is the elbow health of Kyle Farnsworth who put up career numbers in 2012, but had a few episodes with soreness that some thought was a pre-cursor to possible Tommy Johns. 14 days the Rays will see if his off-season rehabilitation and strengthening program brought results or more of the same.

I truly think the Rays have aligned themselves with 3 closers now, who could all be used in certain situations and firmly close the door on the opposition. Farnsworth and Rodney might have the early nods, but I truly think Joel Peralta is going to be the thunder under the dome this season. I saw a spark of it late in 2012 when Farnsworth sat due to his soreness, Peralta showed beyond a shadow of a doubt he could inherit or be destined as the Rays closer. I thought he might ascend to that spot in 2011, but in-synch with Farnsy, the two became a consistent 1-2 late inning punch for the Rays.

14 days when I will be personally sad not to see former Rays Bullpen Coach Bobby Ramos giving off a loud belly laugh as he heads to the practice fields. It will seem odd, but new Bullpen Savant Stan Boroski not only has the credentials, but the familiarity with this Rays staff moving from his Assistant Pitching Coach role to an on-the-field mentor to the Rays staff.

14 days until we see if young catching prospects Nevin Ashley and Stephen Vogt can turn a few Rays heads, possibly moving their own name up the Rays depth chart with impressive Springs, maybe even outing one of the present favorites for a back-up role. Ashley and Vogt have the offensive chops to be with the Rays, but with the catching corps becoming clouded in 2011 with extra pieces and rehabbing players, they might have slipped out of the Rays minds as future weapons.

14 days until at 10 am the gates open and we embrace “officially the Rays 15th season in the Bigs. 15 years where coming into this point in the season there were tons of questions with few answers. This season there are tons of answers with clarifying questions dotting the landscape…for now. Port Charlotte comes alive when the team get back into town. The sky seems bluer, the air has a nice crispness to it and the grass awaits their footprints. 14 days until we can again firmly boast, and await our 2012 Rays. Look, already 15 minutes closer as you finish reading this post.

Could Niemann Break the Rays Arb Winning Streak?

I know most of us will never ever have to step into a mediation or arbitration hearing in our lives.  Could Tampa Bay Rays SP Jeff Niemann have just the right tidbits of information, the right stuff to finally end the Rays arbitration dominance? Weirder things have happened during the Rays existence. Could the Tall Texan  have manufactured and possibly pulled off the first major player versus management coup of 2012. A win by Niemann during this hearing would not only be historic, it would put a road sign firmly in Tampa Bay sand that the Rays dominance at the arbitration table can be defeated. But the decision lingers until Friday. So possibly for 12-18 hours we can believe he has defeated the Rays stoic forces, at least set the tone for some awesome dreams.

Even at 6’9”, Rays starter Jeff Niemann will not have the mound for intimidation as he sit in the room for his hearing. It will be one of those times when it must feel more like a taping of the old show “This Is Your Life” as both side take their turns providing key elements, interesting scenarios possibly going back and forth like a recent tennis match with volleys of well placed rhetoric and statistics to pushing the other side towards the eventual finish line as a victor. Considering the Rays management harbor an impeccable 5-0 arbitration record going into the hearing, you might consider this more a tale of David (Niemann) against Goliath (Rays) with the outcome weighed a bit towards the organization than the unusually  Tall Texan.

When I think of this kind of hearing where good and bad can be weighed, measured and you can be left wanting. I wonder if as a player entering that confined space you have that same fear and level of doubt on the surface knowing you are entering the Lion’s den and could come out alive or be a late afternoon morsel. I wonder if they set up the hotel room/suite with the mediator/arbitrator sitting at a large table in the center of the room and either party takes a couch or one of a set of tables set up for both the team at a predetermined distance to not give either the point of an advantage.

I wonder what effect it has on you as you gaze over at the Rays table and see Rays Executive V P of Baseball Operations Andrew Friedman, who looks more like a star-struck young adult than the right-hand trade trigger man and in-season muscle for Big Stu. We all know that underneath that boyish exterior of Friedman lies the confidence and savvy of a prizefighter. Friedman tends to hope you underestimate his power points during these hearing so he can become a debate “Dan Johnson” and turn quickly on one of your stats or comments and send your hopes and dreams crashing into the Rays Tank. I can even imagine this lip-sync moment unfolding as Friedman quips: “It’s not personal Jeff, it is business”.

What is so disheartening is that the two sides were not that far apart in their original arbitration figures. Basically Niemann was asking for a difference of an MLB Rookie’s salary. But we all know that Friedman and his band of legal eagles have their own agenda and they most certainly have their proverbial “ ducks in their row” that could easily devour and chew up even the healthiest of stats set forth by Niemann and his agent. And you know that Friedman has respect for Niemann and even if a comment or two might seem harsh or painful to hear, the underlying element here is Friedman is doing what he feels is good for the franchise and not going on the attack or blindsiding Niemann.

There are tons of good, edible stats that could set the winning plate for Niemann to get his extra arbitration cabbage, but the Rays organization is sure to point out his “down time”  and yearly bout with the D L or injuries in 2011 that could provide the eventual turning point that might cost Niemann a solid chance to become victorious.  Even if Niemann did post a “W” on TGIF-day, he might suddenly hear the same chorus of trade rumors  that instantly engulfed fellow Washington Nationals starter John Lannan after his own arbitration defeat earlier this week.

Worst thing is even as a long shot to post a win in his arbitration case, Niemann’s days as a Ray are surely numbered. I know each side came out of that hotel room today feeling “lucky”, knowing they presented a solid foundation of numbers, situations and parameters that should slide the weight their direction, but you never know. Niemann and his legal entourage could have deposited the perfect treat, one single solitary morsel of edible goodness that the arbitrator ate up and puts on the “+” side of his balance sheet that could force the decision into Niemann’s favor.

 You can bet whatever the outcome, Niemann will be intent to show the Rays he is/was worth the money, or post numbers that will make their decision this Spring incredibly hard not to keep him on the roster. But have no false illusions, this is a make or break Spring for Niemann. He has fought off fellow Rays pitchers before to take a rotation spot, but this Spring he will face his toughest competition from more than 1 hungry rookie hurler.

Niemann has been a loyal and solid contributor for this team. I hope Niemann and his agent felt great leaving the room on Thursday because that hearing will be just a warm-up for the eventual dogfight for a Rays rotation slot that Niemann will encounter once he takes the field this Spring. All eyes will be watching the Tall Texan this Spring…especially Friedman’s’. I truly hope Jeff breaks the Rays streak.


Tall Order on the Horizon for the Tall Texan

Not really sure what level of comfort Tampa Bay Rays SP Jeff Niemann has to push away a team offer of $ 2.75 million and hold out in the hope of making his change pocket jingle with his own arbitration figure of $ 3.25 million. Is the difference of a measly $ 500,000 really worth possibly alienating your own 2012 future with a team that already might be considering trading or even banishing you to the Bullpen?

Niemann definitely knows he is not honestly being considered for any of the Top 3 Rays 2012 rotation spots,possibly only penciled in as the 5th starter because the Rays will probably send rookie sensation Matt Moore to Triple-A Durham until mid-May. Not sure if even tipping the boat in a minor way is the right thing to do when you are not on a solid foundation with the franchise in terms of your overall pitching health, and a small bout of inconsistent throwing over the past 2 seasons.

Sure you cut an intimidating figure on the mound at 6’9”, but the Rays have their own bit of intimidation at their disposal going a perfect 4-0 against Rays players who dared go into the arbitrator’s chamber with them. But this shows a new level of confidence from the “Tall Texan”, and might end up being the best thing to happen to him this Spring.

But even Niemann has to admit he is not a solid “ sure thing” to make the Rays rotation in 2012. This off-season feels much like the Spring of 2009 when Niemann had to battle ex Ray SP Jason Hammel throw-for-throw during the Spring until the Rays made the decision easier by trading Hammel to the Colorado Rockies on April 5, 2009 for pitcher Aneury Rodriguez.

Seems to me that if Niemann’s arbitration years had started in 2009 or 2010 he might have more foundation to stand on his proposed arbitration figure as his win totals of 13 victories in 2009 and 12 in 2010 are a step above his 2011 total of 11 wins. But maybe Niemann and his agent are banking on the facts his 4.06 ERA was the second best final ERA of his Rays career.

Not sure what the mathematical equations or system Niemann and his agent are using to bring up a $500,000 windfall over the Rays offer, but we know it is not based on Niemann’s last start (38 pitches, 1 inning of work) or the fact Niemann was on the shelf for a total of 42 games, effectively only making 23 starts in 2011 while compiling his 11-7 record. Still, having only 5 no-decisions is a nice accomplishment, but it certainly is not worth half a million dollars.

Combined his short start with the fact Niemann’s last start on Saturday, September 24 was actually 2 days later as the Rays scratched him from his Thursday start against the New York Yankees due to soreness and you see a Niemann pattern developing. But I want to keep positive here, possibly Niemann’s 5-0 record with a 2.08 ERA in his last 6 starts against AL East teams can be the boost needed to have the arbitrator seeing eye-to-eye with the Tall Texan on his arbitration case this Spring

Or possibly Niemann and his agent will flaunt the fact that since Niemann came off the DL on June 20th, and prior to his September 24th debacle start, he posted a 10-3 record with a stellar 3.41 ERA with 88 strikeouts. Possibly the Tall Texan’s team will thrust up the almighty fact Niemann was 8-2 on the road in 2011, the second best record in the American League. Adding to his road list, Niemann had a 3,27 Era on the road to go along with winning 8 of his last 9 decisions, including a complete game 3-hit exclamation point against the Red Sox in Fenway on August 17, 2011.

Maybe Niemann’s representative will be sure to note to the arbitrator that the second member of the “silent assassin” clan went 11-1 when the Rays scored at least 3 runs, plus posted 10 or more K’s in 3 of his starts. Or maybe the proverbial cherry on top of this mound of stats might be the pure fact Niemann won 7 straight decisions from June 20-August 16th, tying his career high and the Rays club record. This is also the second time in his career Niemann has done this feat, previously posting the same results from Oct. 3,2009-June 9, 2010.

Or possibly the fact Niemann went 4-1 in his 5 starts in August 2011, which tied the Rays club record for the month plus the added bonus of his July numbers when he posted a 1.06 ERA in 5 starts setting the Rays club ERA record for any month. These numbers ranked 2nd in the MLB for July, trailing only NYY CC Sabathia and lowered Niemann’s 2011 ERA from 5.58 to 3.51 in the process. Niemann also set a career strikeout mark in 2011 when on July 29th in Seattle Niemann struck out 11 Mariners over 6.2 innings breaking his previous high of 10 K’s.

Still, going up against an organization that boasts a flawless 4-0 record against their players in arbitration begs to differ the difference of $500,000 is worth all the aggravation and possible internal damage beyond the playing field. Who knows what will happen once the doors closes this Spring, or if the Rays and Niemann can somehow reach an accord before the door firmly shuts and Niemann could become another victim of the Rays arbitration winning machine.

I’m not betting on Niemann coming out of this unscathed. No matter if he wins or loses his arbitration case, Niemann has to think he is a pitcher on a bit of a death march. Even if he doesn’t come out with an arbitration victory, Niemann could still find himself out of the Rays fold by April because of the Rays developing pitching talent, and not his overall pluses or minuses to the squad. Arbitration to me seems like a no-win situation where you go into a room fighting your boss and hoping he gains respect, admiration and sees you have that killer instinct you want from your starters. I wish Niemann luck….He is going to definitely need a Texas-sided batch of it heading into his arbitration date with the Rays.


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