PORT CHARLOTTE — You work your way from league to league and town to town. You flash potential in Visalia, you turn heads in Montgomery, and you bide time in Durham. You win dozens of games and throw hundreds of innings.
And then one night in September, everything changes. Thirteen pitches in Minnesota and you look like a new man.
Jeff Niemann has been forever's prospect. An All-American at Rice, the No. 4 pick in the 2004 draft and an All-Star in Triple A. Finally, in his fifth shot at a big-league spring training camp, it looks like forever is about to arrive.
Something will soon break for Niemann. Either he makes the big-league team in April or he is no longer in the Rays organization. Niemann is out of options, which means the Rays cannot send him to the minors without subjecting him to waivers. And there is no way he clears waivers without being claimed.
So, short of injury or possibly a trade, Niemann is leaving spring training with a spot on Tampa Bay's big-league roster. The only question is what his role will be. And that's where the September night in Minnesota comes in.
For the bulk of his career, Niemann has been a starting pitcher. Seventy-one of his 74 minor-league appearances have been starts, including the past 63. But when big-league rosters were expanded in September and Niemann was brought up in the middle of the pennant race, the Rays threw him in the bullpen as an extra arm.
His first big-league relief appearance was mopping up an 11-1 blowout victory against the Twins. A flyout in the eighth, and then two groundouts and a strikeout swinging in the ninth. Nothing particularly memorable except for the impression it left.
"That was among the top five most dominant innings I saw last year," said Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman.
"That one inning of relief was absolutely stupid," said manager Joe Maddon. "You saw that and said, 'Whoa.' "
Technically, Niemann is still a starter. He will throw the first two innings of today's game against the Red Sox and is one of the contenders for the available No. 5 spot in the rotation.
But the memory of his performance in Minnesota last season has the Rays wondering if Niemann's future might not be in the bullpen. It's been talked about before. A 6-foot-9 guy with nasty stuff could be every opponent's nightmare as a closer.
The problem has been Niemann's inconsistency. Because of his size, Niemann has always had trouble repeating his delivery and maintaining the proper arm slot. That has made him something of a risk as a late-inning reliever.
Now the Rays are considering the possibility that shorter appearances might make life easier for Niemann. Instead of worrying about lasting seven innings or using his entire arsenal of pitches, he might be more consistent in shorter bursts.
"You always think about the possibility, and then when you actually see it, it becomes even more of a possibility," Maddon said. "You put him in late in a game and see 96, 97 mph and the downhill look, and it's like, 'Holy (cow).'
"Now we're going to give him a chance, absolutely, to be the fifth starter. But there's a real possibility he could go to the bullpen and really help us. He's the kind of guy you'd have to nurture through, but he's got real potential."
Working out of the bullpen might also simplify Niemann's approach to pitching. Where most starters have decent command of three pitches or more, a reliever can survive with two strong pitches. Niemann has an explosive fastball and has also been throwing a curve, a slider and a splitfinger he developed in 2007. If necessary, he could scuttle one or two of those pitches and still be effective in relief.
Niemann, who turns 26 on Saturday, seems amenable to most suggestions. He has seen others in his draft class move quickly past him to establish themselves in the big leagues. Justin Verlander, Jered Weaver, Philip Hughes, J.P. Howell and Huston Street were taken among the first 40 picks in that '04 draft.
Niemann, meanwhile, has spent two full seasons at Triple A. He dropped his ERA from 3.98 to 3.59 last season, and his hits per nine innings went from 9.9 to 6.8. Ask him about the secret to his improvement and he grins.
"Tired of being down there," Niemann said.
With Carlos Hernandez rapidly emerging as a strong candidate as the No. 5 starter, the chance of Niemann taking over the long relief role seems entirely plausible. It would afford the Rays a chance to ease him into the bullpen, much like they did last season with Howell, who also had been a starter in the minors.
"I know a lot of guys want to say, 'I'm a starter, I'm this or I'm that.' I had experience starting and relieving last year — invaluable experience — and either way to me will be great," Niemann said. "I enjoyed working out of the bullpen a lot more than I thought I would. So whichever way it goes, I don't think it will bother me either way."
He has waited long enough. For Jeff Niemann, the time is right.
No matter which inning it is.