Right-handed pitchers Jeff Niemann and Wade Townsend, former teammates at Rice University and now prospects in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays farm system, were expected to be pitching at the big-league level at this point in their young careers. But chronic arm problems have plagued both pitchers, who each appeared to possess a one-way ticket for the fast train to Tropicana Field. And the injury bug, a constantly- annoying pest for the once-dominant tandem who led the Owls to the College World Series, has struck yet again.
After emerging as the ace of the Triple-A Durham Bulls, Niemann, widely considered one of the top young pitching prospects in all of baseball, is clearly a lot further along in his development than Townsend. The 6'9 right-hander – placed on the disabled list on August 4 (retroactive to August 2) due to shoulder stiffness – is tied for the Durham team-lead with 11 wins and was recently elected as this year's starter at the prestigious Futures Game at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Before the injury, he was 11-5 overall with a 3.90 ERA and 108 strikeouts in 115.1 innings over 22 starts.
In an up-and-down year, Niemann, who was removed from the game in his latest start before retiring a batter – has shown the potential that earned him a lofty signing bonus out of college. He is expected to pitch a simulated game on Wednesday and if things go according to schedule, the 24-year-old could rejoin the Bulls rotation by the start of next week. Many prominent minds in the baseball world have strongly debated whether or not Niemann deserves, and will eventually, earn a promotion to the Devil Rays when major league rosters expand to 40 players in September. Assuming that he can stay healthy for the rest of August, the big Texan could be the second one of the Rice trio – three pitchers, also including Philip Humber (debut with New York Mets in 2006) and Townsend – who were each selected within the first eight picks in the first round of the 2004 draft – to make his big-league debut.
After a dominant career at Rice – including a brilliant senior season, 11 wins and a 2.20 ERA, for the Owls – and a $1.5 million signing bonus, the sometimes-cruel world of baseball came down hard on the former All-American. He was initially drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in 2003, but opted to return to Rice to obtain in his degree, losing his rights to negotiate a major league contract as a result. A year later, degree in hand, Townsend became the second right-hander from Rice to be selected by the Devil Rays in the first round. But shortly after signing, injuries, and perhaps a little bit of rust from sitting out an entire season, began to cloud the future of a once-promising talent.
In 2007, Townsend, fully healthy to start the season after a successful recovery from Tommy John surgery in 2006, was expected to anchor a talented starting rotation at Single-A Columbus, in just his first full-season of professional baseball. The hope was for him to extinguish any doubts or uncertainties about his ability to recover from surgery and future potential as a starting pitcher. But as the career paths of youngsters Jeremy Hellickson and Heath (Lewis) Rollins continue to skyrocket, Townsend's struggles seem to be increasing, largely due to last year's injury, which forced him to miss his second full season of baseball since originally being drafted by Baltimore.
Townsend, who hasn't made a start since July 22, has been held back from action in recent weeks to rest his pitching elbow. Before being sidelined, he was 6-10 with a 5.08 ERA in 21 starts in the South Atlantic League. In 102.2 pre-rest innings, he gave up 91 hits, struck out 92, surrendered 65 runs – 58 of which were earned – and walked 53 batters. Young Devil Rays general manager Andrew Friedman told the St. Petersburg Times that he considers Townsend's health status and recent performance "normal for a pitcher recovering from Tommy John surgery." The 24-year-old, born only six days before Niemann, is expected to make his next start within the next week.
Tampa Bay fans should hope, and possibly wish for, the day that Niemann and Townsend are fully healthy, pitching besides one another again like the good-old days at Rice.
With a talented stable of young pitchers – Wade Davis, Hellickson, Scott Kazmir, Jake McGee, Niemann, and James Shields – all locked up through at least 2009, better days appear to be on the way for the Devil Rays.