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Jeff Niemann to start, Wade Davis heads to bullpen for Tampa Bay Rays

FORT MYERS — Wade Davis is still a starting pitcher. Manager Joe Maddon made that point several times Tuesday, and Davis said that's how he still views himself.

But Davis will at least begin this season in the bullpen, and as a long reliever at that, as the Rays announced Tuesday they would keep Jeff Niemann in a rotation that also includes James Shields, David Price, Jeremy Hellickson and rookie Matt Moore.

"Not your typical last-starter-of-the-rotation decision most teams go through," Maddon said.

Davis, 26, insisted he was looking forward to the opportunity and was not a bit disappointed with the outcome.

"I'm good; it'll be a good experience," Davis said. "It's not a demotion. We're still all going for the same thing, to get to the World Series as a team. Individualizing yourself and taking it personally would be stupid, and selfish."

But Davis, signed last spring to a long-term deal worth $12.6 million over four years and up to $35 million over seven, said he expects to return to starting, where he has posted a 25-22, 4.22 mark in two-plus seasons.

"I still feel like I'm built for that routine — my body is strong, the way I pitch throughout the season," he said. "I still have tons to prove and tons to give back."

Though the decision unfolded as expected, Maddon maintained it was a difficult call — one of the hardest in his seven springs on the job — and made as much on "feel" as anything.

"It's a tough situation, and a good situation, that we're in at the same time, with having these two guys being as good as they are," he said.

Niemann, who went to the last day of spring in 2009 before earning his spot, was glad for resolution. "It's one of those things that's always there but it's not really weighing on you, but just to have the whole situation resolved, it's more relieving than anything else," he said.

The Rays consider Niemann, 29, the more polished starter, impressed with his "pitch-ability" this spring, hoping he opens the year on one of his dominating rolls.

Though he claimed the final spot, Maddon said they had not decided on the order after James Shields works the opener (and Price most likely the second game), and indicated Niemann could end up pitching in the opening series with the Yankees, against whom he is 3-0, 3.10 in five starts.

"Looking through the first part of the season, we kinda liked it," Maddon said. "It's not like you don't like Wade, it's just you had to make a decision. For right now, Wade might be a little more suited for the bullpen, we think, and could really benefit us out there."

A key to Davis' success will be getting him to throw with more velocity, and more aggressively, since he'll be used in shorter stints, something that has been an issue during his starts. On the other hand, keeping him sharp with sporadic work could be an issue.

"There's also certain things I talked to Wade about that I'm not going to say publicly," Maddon said. "There's things we want to work through and make sure both are pitching at the top of their games."

Davis was moved to the bullpen for last season's playoffs and said those two appearances gave him an interesting taste: "It's a little bit more of a rush to go out there and cut loose."

Though Maddon used the phrase "right now" several times in explaining the decision, and though all parties still consider Davis a starter, Maddon said they don't plan to reverse course if Niemann has a couple of rough outings.

"There's no leash attached," Maddon said. "He's just out there to pitch and be one of our starters, and as he's doing that we're going to try to make Wade into the best relief pitcher we possibly can."

Marc Topkin can be reached at topkin@tampabay.com.

>>FAST FACTS

For starters

Though the order isn't set, here is how the Rays rotation looks:

Pitcher, age Career stats

RH James Shields, 30 72-63, 3.96 ERA, 1.233 WHIP

LH David Price, 26 41-26, 3.38 ERA, 1.199 WHIP

RH Jeremy Hellickson, 24 17-10, 3.04 ERA, 1.145 WHIP

LH Matt Moore, 22 1-0, 2.89 ERA, 1.286 WHIP

RH Jeff Niemann, 26 38-23, 4.16 ERA, 1.300 WHIP

WHIP — Walks and hits per innings pitched

Jeff Niemann to start, Wade Davis heads to bullpen for Tampa Bay Rays 03/27/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 27, 2012 9:16pm]

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