ST. PETERSBURG — RHPs Jason Hammel and Edwin Jackson seemed likely — as much by being out of options as anything else — to retain their spots in the Rays rotation, at least to start the season.
But RHP Andy Sonnanstine had to win his the old-fashioned way, and as the result of his strong spring (a 0.64 ERA, .163 average and two walks in 14 innings), and the absence of ace Scott Kazmir, Sonnanstine was named Saturday as the No. 3 starter behind James Shields and Matt Garza.
The decision was something of a surprise, especially to Sonnanstine, who wasn't sure of his role as he was used in relief in four of his six spring outings. "It's been a little stressful for me this whole spring training just not knowing," he said, "but maybe that caused me to work a little bit harder."
But manager Joe Maddon said it was a matter of wanting to see other pitchers first, and having a pretty good idea of how well Sonnanstine, who turned 25 Tuesday, would respond and compete.
"I have a lot of confidence in him," Maddon said. "He just has been a survivor. He's always been the last guy to make teams, and then he always goes out and performs well. He's got to prove himself on an annual basis, and he does. And I think because of that, this guy has built up a certain toughness about him that maybe some other people lack."
The Rays made the rotation official by optioning RHP Jeff Niemann to Triple A ("He made a great case for himself," Maddon said) and targeting LHP J.P. Howell for the long-relief role. ("He really fits the requirements," Maddon said.) They haven't decided whether Jackson or Hammel will be No. 4.
When Kazmir returns — perhaps late April, though no one seems to know for sure — the Rays will have to drop someone, and Maddon said the evaluation process will be ongoing and the requirements to stay higher than in the past.
Hammel (0-1, 7.13 ERA; 21 hits, nine walks in 172/3 IP) said, candidly, he didn't deserve to make the rotation based on his spring work and was determined to show he was worthy: "It's my job now to prove the decision right."
Jackson (0-1, 5.40 ERA; 13 hits, seven walks in 162/3 IP) said he welcomed the opportunity and didn't care where he slotted in the rotation.
ON DECK: Niemann was disappointed but felt he made a good enough impression (going 2-0, 1.50 and heeding the requests to keep the ball down) that he could get back soon. "Hopefully I made a strong enough case and strong enough statement when I was out there that I'm definitely in their heads," he said.
EVAN ALMIGHTY: A verdict on whether 3B prospect Evan Longoria starts in the majors or the minors is expected in the next few days, and he feels he has stated his case well, hitting .289 with teams highs in homers (three), RBIs (10) and walks (10), though he knows there may be more to the decision, such as contractual implications.
"I'm not going to be disappointed in whatever decision they make," Longoria said. "I feel I've done enough, I feel that I deserve to be here, but it's not always going to be based on the best guy, or what's been done. It is a business, too, and I understand that."
PRICE CHECK: Top draft pick LHP David Price left a minor-league exhibition start Thursday after feeling some "discomfort" in his elbow and will see Dr. Koco Eaton in the next few days, but the Rays say they don't consider it anything serious.
MISCELLANY: Saturday's game was canceled due to rain with the Pirates leading 2-0 after two innings. … Maddon said Kazmir keeps "getting better" but remains limited to playing catch, and there is still no timetable for him to return to the mound. … The staff met late Saturday, and remaining roster decisions may go to the end of the week, including a battle for the last relief spot between RHPs Grant Balfour and Scott Dohmann. … C Hector Gimenez, who could get a big-league look once his right shoulder is fully recovered from surgery, was reassigned to minor-league camp.