ST. PETERSBURG — RHP Jeff Niemann said the offseason has given him a chance to finally reflect and soak in what a roller-coaster rookie year he had.
Niemann, 26, had to nervously wait until the final day of spring training to find out whether he'd made the team as the fifth starter or would be traded by the only franchise he had ever known. When finally given the chance, all the 6-foot-9 Texan did was come out of nowhere to become a candidate for American League rookie of the year, an award that will be announced Monday.
"It's crazy how full circle things have come," Niemann said from his hometown of Houston. "The humble beginnings and what really happened, where we are now. It's a great story for me to tell, and it never gets old. I still find myself kind of wondering how everything worked out the way it did."
Niemann, who had a staff-best 13 wins and two complete games, is a long shot in a competitive rookie class that includes A's reliever Andrew Bailey, White Sox 3B Gordon Beckham, Rangers SS Elvis Andrus and Tigers RHP Rick Porcello. Niemann said he's honored just to be in the mix but knows how much it would mean, considering the journey he has taken since being a first-round pick in 2004.
"It'd be unreal," he said. "This is kind of validating all the hard work all those years, hanging in there. … It would mean a lot."
But even if Niemann doesn't win, he said he won't leave his first full big-league season empty-handed. There was the newfound comfort he felt in the clubhouse. There was his ability to keep his composure (initially shown in his first start in Baltimore) and to dominate (his shutout against Kansas City, what he called a "turning point") and learning how to pitch through fatigue the last month.
"As far as from Day 1 compared to the last day of the season, I really transformed and grew a lot as a pitcher," said Niemann, who went 13-6 with a 3.94 ERA in 30 starts. "I learned more than I've learned in my whole career this year, due to the whole trial and error."
Niemann is excited about what fellow rookie starters Wade Davis and David Price showed in 2009 and how they have a "unique opportunity" as they set their goal for each to throw at least 200 innings next season, when their leashes will be off.
And Niemann knows he'll be a more comfortable and confident pitcher going into spring training in February. Though he acknowledged that no spots are guaranteed, "it'll be nice to know I have already done it and won't have to prove myself like the first spring training, not going to have to come out of the gates firing and opening eyes."
And Niemann won't likely have to stay back on the last day of camp in Port Charlotte to await his fate.
Niemann laughed, saying, "Let's hope not."
rays rumblings: With trade rumors already circulating about All-Star leftfielder Carl Crawford, now there's an apparently false, unattributed report from the NY Baseball Digest that suggests Crawford is upset with the Rays and wants out of Tampa Bay. In fact, Crawford's agent, Brian Peters, said this week he's looking forward to discussing a long-term deal in the coming months. ...The Rays are still reportedly talking about a potential Milton Bradley-Pat Burrell trade, but the money issue remains a significant obstacle (Burrell is owed $9 million for 2010, Bradley $21 million over the next two years). To make the deal, the Rays would presumably want the Cubs to pick up a significant portion of Bradley's contract, and foxsports.com reported last week that the talks have been "worse than Chinese water torture."
Joe Smith can be reached at email@example.com.