Less than three weeks before the Rays play games that count, 6-foot-9 Jeff Niemann is still trying to stand out from the pack.
He could be Tampa Bay’s fifth starter, he could be a long man out of the bullpen or he could be moved to a team intrigued with a savvy veteran sporting a .606 career winning percentage in the majors.
The uncertainty surrounding Niemann is nothing new for the 30-year-old right-hander, who was the fourth overall pick in the 2004 amateur draft.
“It seems like every year, Jeff’s in this situation, where he’s not guaranteed a spot and his name is out there in trade rumors,” said Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey. “If you look at his career, there’s been a lot of setbacks — he’s come through every one of them.”
An assortment of injuries has slowed Niemann’s progress since he emerged as a power pitcher at Rice a decade ago.
Despite a 40-26 record in the major leagues that ranks as the second-best success rate in Rays history behind David Price, Niemann finds himself in a highly contested battle for the final spot in a talented rotation.
Also in the mix is veteran Roberto Hernandez.
“(Both Niemann and Hernandez) are throwing well this spring,” said Rays manager Joe Maddon. “It’s a great problem to have.”
A year ago, after Niemann had beaten out Wade Davis as a starter, his future in Tampa Bay appeared secure.
But Niemann made only eight starts in 2012, as a fractured right fibula suffered on May 14 sidelined him until Sept. 1, when he felt tightness in his right arm at Toronto and was shut down for the rest of the season.
In four appearances this spring, including two starts, Niemann has shown no residual effects from last year’s ailments.
Facing the Phillies on Saturday, Niemann yielded only a Ryan Howard solo home run in 32/3 innings as the Rays romped to a 15-7 victory.
“I felt good the whole time out,” Niemann said after posting three strikeouts. “It’s all about trusting your stuff, letting them put the ball in play and letting your defense do the work. I really threw the cutter well today, getting bad swings and jam shots.”
Since going 17-0 at Rice in 2003, Niemann has fought off elbow, shoulder, groin and back issues.
“We’re looking for Jeff to be healthy, period … end of story,” Hickey said. “When this guy’s healthy, there are stretches when he’s arguably our best pitcher.”
Niemann has several factors in his favor in the heated competition against Hernandez, who was 19-8 with Cleveland in 2007, when he went by the name Fausto Carmona.
Niemann boasts a 22-13 road record in the majors, and he’s a dazzling 38-8 as a starter when Tampa Bay scores at least three runs.
He is also a combined 12-5 against AL East counterparts New York, Boston and Baltimore.
“It’s not even on my mind,’’ Niemann said of the two-man race for the final starting spot. “We’re feeling good about what we’re doing, and that’s what it’s all about. We know what we can do, and we’re clicking.”
While examining Niemann’s mechanics closely, Hickey senses progress.
“What I’m really encouraged about is, he’s throwing his off-speed stuff, whether it’s a slider or a split-finger, with a lot of vigor,’’ Hickey said. “Those balls have a lot of good late action. He’s spinning it real good, and if his shoulder wasn’t healthy, that would be the absolute last thing to come around.”