PORT CHARLOTTE — With Rays right-hander Jeff Niemann going through yet another spring battle for a spot, manager Joe Maddon likes to keep their conversations light and loose.
Maddon, a classic car owner himself, will ask Niemann about the red 1966 Chevy Nova he has had restored this past year. Niemann said it's almost ready to drive, though a tighter squeeze for his 6-foot-9, 285-pound frame.
"It's small, but it's designed around me," Niemann said. "There's no backseat, let's put it that way."
Niemann, 30, is hoping there's room for him to fit in the rotation, but he's in a close competition with right-hander Roberto Hernandez. It looks like the Rays will wait until the end of camp to decide, with the option of also making either the long reliever. The uncertainty is more the norm than new for Niemann, who has had to fight for a spot four of the past five years, while hearing his name pop up in trade rumors.
"It's not worth wasting the energy to think about the what-ifs either way," Niemann said.
Niemann focuses on what he can control. Though he allowed five runs on 10 hits in six innings Friday against the Orioles, he said the numbers weren't reflective of how well he felt and threw. He attacked hitters, with five strikeouts and one walk, "finally" feeling some life behind his ball.
"Everything was clicking," Niemann said. "It was a confidence day."
Tampa Bay has always been confident in Niemann's ability. Niemann, the team's No. 4 overall pick in 2004 out of Rice, has evolved a versatile repertoire, a five-pitch mix (cutter, two-seam fastball, split, slider and curve) with each boasting movement. He throws just 88 to 92 mph, but with the downward angle in his delivery, the Rays say his stuff stacks up with anyone on staff. His 40-26 record is the second-best winning percentage in team history behind Cy Young winner David Price.
"When he's on, he easily could be the best we have," catcher Chris Gimenez said. "He's Price-esque."
Fellow pitcher Jeremy Hellickson said: "When he's on, he's as good as it gets."
The caveat for Niemann has always been, can he stay on the field? Having already overcome injuries in the minors, including shoulder surgery, Niemann has spent stints on the disabled list every season but his rookie year, when he led the Rays in wins (13) and all rookies in innings with a career-high 180 2/3. "He should have won rookie of the year," Maddon said.
Niemann's future with the team appeared secure last spring, when he beat out Wade Davis for the fifth spot. He put it together at Yankee Stadium on May 9, allowing one run over seven innings.
Niemann said: "That's the best I've been as a pitcher, a baseball player."
But in the first inning of his next start, Niemann broke his right leg, hit by a line drive by Blue Jays first baseman Adam Lind. He spent 3 1/2 months on the disabled list, making just one more start, Sept. 1, before he was shut down because of inflammation in his rotator cuff.
"It's definitely an uphill battle, trying to get back to where I was," Niemann said.
Niemann believes he can get there, and though his velocity has been down this spring, neither he nor Maddon are concerned. The scoreboard radar gun wasn't on Friday, but Maddon thought Niemann (3.86 ERA) was "really sharp," until he left some balls up in his final two innings.
The Rays have also liked Hernandez, who they signed to a $3.25 million deal (with $1.85 million in incentives), knowing they need an innings-eater after trading James Shields and Davis to the Royals.
Hernandez (3.00), a former All-Star, is having an impressive spring, but both he and Niemann will get a final start next week.
"I don't want to win by default," Niemann said. "I want to earn it."
Joe Smith can be reached at [email protected]