FORT MYERS — The competition for the fifth spot in the Rays rotation now has a fifth candidate.
Left-hander Cesar Ramos starts today against the Yankees in what officially marks his previously unannounced inclusion in the battle to replace injured Jeremy Hellickson for the first six to eight weeks of the season.
Ramos, 29, had been a starter in the minors but primarily a long reliever in the majors, including most of the past three seasons with the Rays.
"If you look at Cesar, he's a guy who has a bucketful of average to above-average pitches," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "We feel like he's a guy who can get out right-handers and left-handers, and he had started in the past."
Ramos joins a field that includes lefty Erik Bedard, a veteran in camp on a minor-league deal, plus right-handers Jake Odorizzi, Alex Colome and Nathan Karns.
Bedard and Odorizzi had been the leading candidates, and Ramos now appears to be on at least equal footing, with a decision expected by around March 20.
"There's definitely guys that probably have a leg up, but at the end of the day, we're going to look at all those guys," manager Joe Maddon said. "I've also said spring training doesn't count as much as what you've done in a past regular season. So this particular moment there's going to be a lot of different thoughts on how to fill this last spot out."
Though Tuesday was the first time Rays officials mentioned Ramos as a candidate, they claimed it has been in the works, under consideration, and in discussion with Ramos, throughout the offseason, presumably in the event of a David Price trade.
And they insisted it was something they mutually agreed to pursue at the start of spring training — after knowing there indeed was an opening due to Hellickson's unexpected late January surgery, but not in reaction to what they have seen from the other candidates.
"We wanted to assess where we were at the beginning of camp and then make a decision from there," Friedman said.
Ramos hasn't said much about the possibility — he smiled and played coy when Rays radio pre-/postgame host Neil Solondz asked him about it Tuesday morning at the Port Charlotte complex — but is said to be on board.
"He was all for it," Maddon said. "It's something he'd like to do."
When Ramos was acquired in a December 2010 trade with San Diego, he told the Rays he wasn't comfortable bouncing between starting and relieving, and they agreed to put him in the bullpen. (He did make one start in 2012 in a rainout-forced doubleheader.)
But Maddon said that with experience, he is more willing.
"I think now he's better able to handle if he's not in the rotation to go back to the bullpen, and that thought would not bother him as maybe it did in the past," Maddon said. "Furthermore we think that he's capable of pitching five-plus innings with all the different weapons he has, and he's able to get out a righty, too."
Bottom line, the Rays seem to figure it can't hurt to take a look, since at worst Ramos will end up back in his long relief role.
"I don't know how things are going to play out," Friedman said. "We're going to stretch him out and get a feel for where he slots among the fifth starter candidates. To the extent that it works out well, that's obviously a great outcome, and to the extent it doesn't, there's not really much downside, in that he will be stretched out, which can only help when we get to the beginning of the season."
Marc Topkin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.