Niemann was the Rays' top pick at No. 4 in the 2004 First-Year Player Draft. The right-hander has been hampered by a slew of injuries to his groin, elbow and shoulder which have stalled his development and limited him to a string of disappointing seasons in the Minors.
But that could all change this season, as Niemann is coming off an All-Star campaign with Triple-A Durham in 2007, where he went 12-6 with a 3.98 ERA. Niemann is expected to compete for one of the final two spots in the Rays' rotation. Still, the tall, powerful righty, who turned 25 on Thursday, knows earning a coveted spot in the Rays' rotation will be more difficult than in years past.
With the trio of Scott Kazmir, James Shields and Matt Garza up front, there are just two spots to compete for. Otherwise, it could be back to Durham to start the season.
"There's a lot of guys going out for the spots, so it should be very competitive around here," Niemann said. "I just want to try to make sure I keep the ball down and have a good downward plane on the ball. After that, we'll try and see."
While Niemann can't control the challenge of getting on the mound, he hopes his offseason conditioning, which focused on flexibility and strength, will keep those lingering health questions at bay.
"I feel good for this time of the year, I started throwing a few weeks earlier than I usually do to get my body in shape and have a whole healthy season," he said.
Names in the game: Dick Bosman, the Rays' Minor League pitching coordinator, spent 11 seasons in the Major Leagues, where he compiled an 82-85 record with a 3.67 ERA -- including a 1969 campaign in which he won the American League ERA title with Washington (2.19). One of Bosman's main jobs this spring has been aiding in the development of the Rays' crop of young arms, including lefty Jake McGee and right-handers Chris Mason and Wade Davis.
Said Bosman: "As kids go through the Minor Leagues and get closer to the big leagues, the main emphasis is to be able to throw the offspeed pitch whenever they need to, and be able to locate and get in the minds of the hitter.
"Wade's ball can move. He just needs to work on locating his breaking stuff better. And for guys like Jake and Chris Mason, to be here, it starts to open their eyes and gives them more of an opportunity to evaluate themselves."
As for Bosman's evaluation on 2007's No. 1 overall Draft pick, left-hander David Price:
"I haven't seen him throw in a baseball game yet, so I've got a lot to learn and a lot to watch for with him," Bosman said. "I'm just really proud of this club over the years for not only selecting good athletes, but selecting good kids. It just makes it so much more fun and easy when you know you're going to work with some kid that you actually like."
They're No. 1: Top prospect Evan Longoria isn't worrying about the starting third-base job, his first Major League hit, or whether he can live up to all the hype. Instead, Longoria has a simple goal: Make the team.
"I feel like I have to be a contributor in some way, more or less play the role that they want me to play to help the team," Longoria said. "Once I make the club, I'll adjust and create some goals for myself."
Class of '07: Price may be a rookie, but he sure doesn't act like it. While many pitchers aim to impress and overthrow early in camp, the lefty has done just the opposite, smartly opting out of Tuesday's intrasquad game and showing a maturity far beyond his 22 years.
"My arm just got stiff," Price said. "I warmed up fine around 9:45 in the morning and then kind of just sat there for three hours.
"But [the coaching staff] said not to worry about it. It's a long season and [the intrasquad game], it's not that important. There'll be another day."
Price threw at Thursday's practice and said everything felt fine.
What they're saying: "I was cold definitely, but it's nice to get that first outing out of the way. I didn't get very much in, but I did get to throw strikes and keep the ball down. I only got to throw one changeup and two curveballs, so it was kind of a just-throw-strikes day." -- Davis on his Spring Training debut on Wednesday
Brittany Ghiroli is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.