ST. PETERSBURG — RHP prospect Jeff Niemann's debut today may not be as ballyhooed as Evan Longoria's on Saturday night, but the fellow former first-round pick has his eyes on the same prize: a long-term stay.
Like Longoria, Niemann, 25, believed he made a strong case this spring, going 2-0 with a 1.50 ERA before being one of the final cuts. The 6-foot-9 former Rice standout is at his best when he keeps the ball down, and he did just that in two solid starts at Durham (1-1, 3.27).
The key, manager Joe Maddon said, will be Niemann's fastball command, which will set up hitters for his "exceptional breaking pitches" like a curve, slider and splitter.
"Yes, (Niemann) has a chance to stick," Maddon said. "The odds aren't as good for him (as Longoria) at this particular juncture, but you never know. It'll be performance-based; we feel as though he's about ready to be in the big leagues, so if he goes out and pitches well enough, it may further the competition."
KAZ UPDATE: Ace LHP Scott Kazmir (left elbow strain) is scheduled to throw two controlled innings at extended spring Tuesday then a three-inning stint at Class A Vero Beach on Friday, the first of three expected minor-league starts (advancing to 4-5 innings then 5-6 innings). That could push his return to early May.
AYBAR AILING: 3B Willy Aybar said his left hamstring hurt so much after he tweaked it Wednesday trying to score from second that he "couldn't even walk" Thursday morning. Aybar played through pain the first eight games after battling hamstring issues in spring training, but the latest aggravation was too much. The Rays said Friday that Aybar was expected to be out from two to more than four weeks, but Aybar said he's hoping for the optimistic prognosis.
GARZA'S REHAB: RHP Matt Garza (radial nerve irritation) played catch for the first time since pulling himself from Tuesday's start. He said he felt "great" and pain-free, throwing 10-15 times from 100 feet. Maddon said Garza will likely throw from about 120 feet today. The 24-year-old, on the 15-day DL, is expected to be out four weeks.
MISCELLANY: Elliot Johnson made the start at shortstop to give Jason Bartlett a day off and held his own in the field. … To make room for Longoria on the 40-man roster, RHP Chad Orvella was transferred to the 60-day DL. … RHP Jae Kuk Ryu was sent to Durham to make room for Niemann.
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.