Race for final Rays rotation spot pushing pitchers to be better

Competition has its benefits. Take, for example, the battle for the fifth spot in the Tampa Bay Rays' rotation: Cesar Ramos, Jake Odorizzi and Erik Bedard have all gained something by this battle for the mound, leaving a tough choice for manager Joe Maddon as the season gets close.

Left-hander Cesar Ramos (left) and righty Jake Odorizzi (right) have each put their talents on display in hopes of landing in the rotation.

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PORT CHARLOTTE, Fla. -- Joe Maddon, of course, knew this choice was coming, like a freight train in the distance. The moment right-hander Jeremy Hellickson underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right elbow Jan. 29, a spring storyline was set, a five-week audition to unfold during these slow-paced days.

The question: Who will be the Tampa Bay Rays' fifth starter? The importance: Plenty, with someone steady needed on the back end of a rotation that will include left-hander David Price, right-hander Alex Cobb, left-hander Matt Moore and right-hander Chris Archer.

The audition for left-hander Cesar Ramos, right-hander Jake Odorizzi and left-hander Erik Bedard has reached its final hours, the clock ticking toward that first homestand from March 31-April 6. There's little easy about the selection. The search for No. 5 during spring training's twilight is ... complicated.

"You have to consider what guys have done last year," said Maddon, the Rays' manager. "You have to consider that. Having said that, there's still the ability to change your thoughts a little bit. But as you're watching the guy tonight, don't forget what you saw last year."

Maddon said those words about six hours before the Rays polished off a 5-4 victory over the Minnesota Twins on Thursday. The night served as a de-facto "final argument" at Charlotte Sports Park for two contenders, Ramos and Odorizzi, with Maddon expected to announce the choice Saturday.

Ramos was clean and efficient in 4 2/3 innings, allowing no runs, four hits and one walk with six strikeouts, and he was impressive enough that Maddon said, "It's the best I've ever seen him pitch." Odorizzi, meanwhile, was shaky at times in four innings, allowing four runs (three earned), six hits and one walk with three strikeouts.

"It will be interesting," Ramos said. "Hopefully, I made it tough on them. ... I think a little competition pushes anybody. It gets that feel like it got me more locked in earlier this spring instead of as the spring progressed."

"I think it was for the best, honestly," Odorizzi said. "For all of us, competition makes people better. We've been in it for all spring now, and it's supposed to be a decision coming up soon. It has just been a good way to get that competition level cranked up in spring training rather than the start of the season."

Reading too much into Thursday's results would be like judging a forest by one pine needle. More perspective is required when analyzing the cases for Ramos, Odorizzi and Bedard, the most veteran of the possibilities.

The decision comes down to a nuanced question: What's most valued?

Is it hard results? Is it youth? Is it the ability to keep all of a roster's assets?

On hard results alone, Odorizzi has impressed this spring, despite some struggles Thursday. He began the evening with a 1-1 record and a 2.25 ERA in four appearances, allowing two runs and seven hits in eight innings. After Hellickson's surgery, he was the presumed favorite among many, and he has done little to hurt his case. Ramos, meanwhile, began Thursday without a decision and a 4.00 ERA in three appearances, allowing four runs and eight hits in nine innings.

And Bedard, well, he had been knocked around the most of the bunch, holding a 2-1 record with a 7.15 ERA in four appearances, allowing nine runs and 17 hits in 11 1/3 innings.

On youth alone, Odorizzi and Ramos have the obvious edge. Odorizzi is 23 years old and Ramos 29, whereas Bedard is a seasoned 35.

On keeping all of a roster's assets, though, naming Bedard the starter has advantages. The 10-year veteran has said he has no desire to become a reliever. Signed to a minor-league deal on the first day of camp, he could use his opt-out clause to leave and search for a starter role elsewhere beginning March 31. Maddon has said that chance won't influence the decision, though it makes sense to keep all these arms at his disposal.

Sound complicated? It is.

One choice affects all. There are enough positives and negatives everywhere, plus some gray area, that none of this is simple.

"It all depends who makes the last decision, whatever they need or want -- if they want younger or older, more experienced, less experienced, more money, less money," Bedard said. "It's a big equation. They've got a lot of stuff that comes in hand that they have to figure out."

The Rays have worked through this puzzle before. Remember the competition between right-handers Jeff Niemann and Roberto Hernandez last spring? Remember that cost-benefit choice, one that dominated the drama at Charlotte Sports Park this time last year?

Hernandez received the nod, though it didn't matter much late in the summer. He struggled through a year in which he went 6-13 with a 4.89 ERA, and he was moved to the bullpen with Archer's rise. The demotion was little surprise.

The same could happen to whoever wins this job. Nothing is assumed or permanent on the mound, as shown year after year, through Hernandez's example and elsewhere.

Presumably, Hellickson will be inserted into the rotation again when healthy. That means whoever claims this fifth starter job, no matter the reason, likely will change his role after the first six to eight weeks of the season.

Still, this competition had value. It pushed each to be better. It pushed each to escape their comfort zone. It pushed each to reach deeper into what's possible earlier than expected, and whether the result is seen as the Rays' fifth starter or elsewhere, the benefits of these weeks will show.

"They're all working on stuff," Rays catcher Ryan Hanigan said. "O-Dog (Odorizzi) found another pitch with that split-change that has been real nice. Erik has been pretty sharp, really, in terms of execution. And I caught Ramos one time, and he looked pretty good. ... They're all fighting. They're all making it a tough competition. They're all big-league pitchers. It's good to have that depth. We'll see what happens."

Soon enough, everyone will see. But already, no matter the outcome, each contender has shown themselves plenty.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.