PLAYER TO WATCH
Two days before last year's season opener righthanders Jason Hammel and Jeff Niemann, who had competed for the Rays' fifth-starter spot all spring, sat in the minor league mess hall in Port Charlotte, Fla., waiting to hear who would get the job. Niemann, the No. 4 pick in the 2004 draft, got it; Hammel was traded to the Rockies that day. By early May, however, there might have been doubts about that decision. Niemann was rocked in his first six starts, putting up a 5.65 ERA and more walks (18) than strikeouts (16). Fellow righthander Matt Garza says that Niemann, 27, seemed rattled after throwing "stress-level pitches" in the spring. By mid-May, Niemann says, "I got a little confidence and settled in."
It helped that Niemann began working with a sports psychologist, who taught breathing exercises to help him focus on each pitch. From May 13 on, Niemann led the team in wins (11) and starters' ERA (3.61). "He was able to control his emotions on the mound," says manager Joe Maddon. "His stuff was no different."
This spring the Tampa Bay starters—a young, talented group consisting of Niemann, Garza, lefthander David Price and righthanders James Shields and Wade Davis—set a goal of pitching 1,000 innings, a lofty target considering only Garza and Shields have cracked 200 in a season. To improve his durability, the 6'9", 260-pound Niemann did Pilates over the winter. With his job secure and his mind and body in shape, he should be comfortable from Day One this season.
Pitches seen per plate appearance in 2009 by the Rays, making them the most patient offense in the American League since the 2000 Mariners (3.97). All those deep counts paid off: Tampa Bay's .343 OBP tied the highest mark in franchise history.
One of the underrated reasons for the success of the 2008 Rays was the on-the-fly development of their bullpen. After a late-season injury to closer Troy Percival, Joe Maddon abandoned a traditional model and used his relievers for longer outings, across multiple innings, according to factors that had nothing to do with the save rule. The 2010 Rays have a nominal closer in Rafael Soriano, but returning to a more flexible approach is the best way to leverage such live arms as J.P. Howell, Grant Balfour and Dan Wheeler, all of whom were effective in '08. Maddon was far too focused on matchups in '09, with 10 of his relievers averaging less than a full inning per outing; his pen fell apart down the stretch under the heavy usage. Fewer pitching changes and longer outings will produce more wins and, just maybe, a repeat of that 2008 run deep into October.
WITH 2009 STATISTICS
Manager Joe Maddon
5TH SEASON WITH RAYS
4 2 3.28 0.87
FOCUS FINDER Niemann learned to keep his emotions, and hitters, in check.