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Picking Up Pitching

June 7, 2004
By Marc Tompkin

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla.--The Devil Rays like to draft players who can make a big impact.

They felt like they did that in drafting Rice University righthander Jeff Niemann, who stands 6-foot-9, weighs around 260 pounds and throws very, very hard.

"He's a power pitcher that still has some room to improve,'' general manager Chuck LaMar said. "He's unique because he's so good at the collegiate level and a lot of those guys are 'what you see is what you get,' and a lot of them went off the (draft) board. This young man has a chance to improve.''

Niemann was one of nine pitchers the Rays drafted in the first 18 rounds of the draft, and they are expected to add more.

Niemann, 21, was the nation's top college pitcher in 2003, going 17-0, 1.70 and hitting 97-98 mph on the radar guns. He was slowed this season following recovery from a minor off-season arthroscopic procedure on his elbow and then a groin strain. The injuries hurt his 2004 stats (6-3, 3.02) and his velocity was down in recent starts, but the Rays feel he is totally healthy and have no concerns about long-term health issues.

Niemann has a blazing fastball that can hit 97 mph but he also has a biting slider, a knuckle curve and a rarely needed changeup.

"He's truly unique because he's got four pitches and he can use those pitches yet he's a power guy,'' LaMar said. "You don't see that very often that you draft a college player that has a power arm that has a chance to get better can use the stuff that he has.''

Player development/scouting director Cam Bonifay said the Rays considered Niemann the best player available when they picked, but their need for young pitching prospects is obvious.

Niemann, who pitched 80 innings for Rice, is expected to move quickly to the major leagues, though he probably won't pitch for the Rays this season, LaMar said.

With Rice eliminated from NCAA play, negotiations on a bonus in the $3-million range are expected to start soon, with Niemann possibly coming for a visit later this week.

"To me, Jeff projects as a major league team's No. 1 pitcher,'' Rice coach Wayne Graham said. "He may have the biggest ceiling of any player in the entire draft. He's a steal at No. 4. I'm happy a Texan like Chuck LaMar got him."

COOL RAYS

The Devil Rays selected Kent State righthander Andy Sonnanstine in the 13th round. Sonnanstine pitched 18 innings in the Mid-American Conference tournament, allowing only three earned runs and striking out 18. He followed that up by beating top-seeded Notre Dame 2-1 in the NCAA tournament.

Shortstop Cale Iorg, the Devil Rays 16th-round selection out of Karns High in Knoxville, Tenn., is the son of former Blue Jay Garth Iorg. Cale's brother, Eli, an outfielder at Tennessee, was a 14th-round pick for the Cubs.

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