Rays Give Niemann Top Deal In 2004 Draft

By John Manuel

January 20, 2005

The Devil Rays and first-round pick Jeff Niemann have agreed to terms on a five-year major league contract that guarantees the former Rice righthander $5.2 million, including a signing bonus of $3.2 million.

"I knew things were going to work out," Niemann said. "It was just a matter of time until things fell into place, and they fell into place perfectly. I’m not sure either side could ask for anything better."

Niemann, the fourth overall pick, had been one of three remaining unsigned first-rounders still negotiating with the clubs that drafted them. His former Rice teammate, Philip Humber, signed Jan. 11 with the Mets, who drafted him one slot ahead of Niemann. The two remaining unsigned first-rounders are Long Beach State righthander Jered Weaver, who went 12th overall to the Angels, and Florida State shortstop Stephen Drew, who went 15th to the Diamondbacks.

Niemann received $1 million more in guaranteed money than Humber and nearly $800,000 more than the No. 2 overall pick, Old Dominion righthander Justin Verlander, got from the Tigers.

"I think you have to credit the Devil Rays for recognizing that Jeff is a unique and special talent," said Niemann's agent, Casey Close of IMG.

Niemann's allure stems from his combination of a strong 6-foot-9, 260-pound frame, power stuff and surprising command for a man his size. At his best, he has a fastball that reaches 97 mph, and he does an excellent job of staying tall in his delivery and using his height to drive the ball down through the strike zone. He also throws a nasty slider that scouts considered the best available in the 2004 draft class, and he added a spike curveball that he picked up from his former roommate and Rice teammate Wade Townsend, the Orioles' unsigned first-round pick.

Niemann had a difficult 2004 season, pitching just 80 innings as he came back from offseason arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow and battling an in-season groin pull. He went 6-3, 3.02 with 94 strikeouts in 80 innings for the Owls, a good season but far off his record-setting 2003. Niemann led Rice to the national championship that year, tying an NCAA Division I record for wins in an undefeated season by going 17-0, 1.70 that included 156 strikeouts in 137 innings. Had he been completely healthy, Niemann could have gone No. 1 overall in the draft.

Devil Rays officials have high hopes for Niemann, who becomes a key part of the organization's pitching plans. The organization has had little success developing its own pitchers, but sees Niemann teaming with lefthander Scott Kazmir, acquired from the Mets last season, to give them a 1-2 punch atop the rotation for the long-term future.

Niemann will report to St. Petersburg next week to begin offseason workouts with the Rays.

Correspondent Marc Topkin (St. Petersburg Times) contributed to this report.