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.