PORT CHARLOTTE — For Rays right-hander Andy Sonnanstine, this camp has been unlike any other in his career.
The former 13th-round pick in 2004 from Kent State, who has always had to "scrape by to prove" himself worthy of a job, is penciled in the No. 4 spot of the rotation, security that "is like a weight off my shoulders."
But Sonnanstine, coming off a breakout 13-win season, is far from resting on his laurels. Though manager Joe Maddon says what Sonnanstine did last year — including posting two playoff wins and having an exceptional September — has helped him "arrive as a major-league pitcher," with all the talented young arms in the Rays system, "he knows he has to fight to stay."
That's why Sonnanstine, 26, said he's working hard to develop his changeup, which he rarely threw last year. He believes if he can make it an above-average pitch, it will take him to the next level. Pitching coach Jim Hickey said Sonnanstine's breaking ball is sharper. Sonnanstine may not get the same attention as fellow starting pitchers James Shields, Scott Kazmir and Matt Garza, but the Rays say he was invaluable in their World Series run and gives their rotation another dimension.
"He brings something different to the table that none of us have," Shields said. "He brings five different arm angles. He brings changes in speeds in his offspeed stuff and his fastball. He probably attacks the zone better than anybody on the team."
Sonnanstine doesn't have overpowering stuff, but he stands out with his cerebral — and improvisational — approach, his conviction with his pitches (including the fastball and slider) and his control. Since Sonnanstine is double-jointed, he can vary his arm slots and speeds, making for a deceptive delivery.
Kent State associate head coach Mike Birkbeck, who pitched six years in the majors, said not many pitchers can be so creative with their release points.
"He moves the ball, he pitches in and out, and everything has movement," third baseman Evan Longoria said. "It's usually never the same speed, either. Hitters will tell you that's usually the most frustrating type of pitcher, because you're in the box and not really intimidated by his stuff. We call it an 'easy 0-for-4,' because you go up there and at the end of the day you're going, 'How did I go 0-for-4 against this guy?' "
Garza had similar skepticism when, while with the Twins organization, he saw Sonnanstine in Triple A. "I was like, 'This kid is never going to win,' " he said. "Then he threw a one-hitter against a lot better guy that year, (Kevin) Slowey, who was untouchable in Triple A."
Now, Garza said, "All (Sonnanstine) does is win."
Sonnanstine outdueled some of the majors' best pitchers last season, with the Rays winning his starts against A.J. Burnett, Ervin Santana, Carlos Zambrano, Josh Beckett and Daisuke Matsuzaka (twice).
"He was in almost every big game we had," catcher Dioner Navarro said. "And he did good."
Sonnanstine said his two starts against Beckett — when he gave up a combined zero earned runs — opened his eyes and caught the attention of others in the league.
"He doesn't throw as hard as the rest of the guys, but he keeps you in the ball game," Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston said. "I don't think anybody in baseball would throw him out the door. They would certainly love to have him, too."