PORT CHARLOTTE — The discomfort in J.P. Howell's left shoulder was obvious Wednesday — on Andy Sonnanstine's face.
With Howell, their top setup man, out at least a month, the Rays didn't have much choice but to give the fifth spot in the rotation to rookie Wade Davis. And the runner-up prize of the long-relief job wasn't much consolation to Sonnanstine.
"A little disappointed," he said. "It's a tough one to swallow."
Sonnanstine said repeatedly he was ready, willing and able to do what he could to embrace his new role, but his cautiousness was clear. He has limited experience in the bullpen (four big-league appearances, 10 in Class A) and questions about how much and how often he'll be able to pitch, what changes to make to his workout routine and how to handle the late-game situations.
"I feel like I've been a starter most of my life, I feel more confident as a starter, I feel like I'm a better pitcher as a starter," he said. "This is something that being a team guy, I really want to dive into and start learning. … Hopefully the learning curve isn't too big."
With Howell out and prospects to replace him externally uncertain, the Rays felt it necessary to make the decision now. They wanted time for Davis, who has had a rough spring, to get stretched out, and straightened out, and Sonnanstine working on the requisite adjustments.
"The competition would have continued had J.P. not been injured," manager Joe Maddon said.
The Rays still have another competition ongoing for the final spot in the pen, with right-hander Heath Rollins, a 24-year-old with 121/3 innings above Double A and a 4.91 spring ERA, a surprise addition to a field that, after Wednesday's cuts, is down to Joaquin Benoit, Mike Ekstrom and Dale Thayer.
"I didn't know a whole lot about him before this camp," Maddon said. "What I do know is I love his demeanor. He's under control when he has the ball late in the game. … He's made good pitches, he keeps the ball down. Who knows? You don't have to throw 100 miles an hour to be effective."
Rollins, a shy Southerner from Winthrop University who spent most of last year as a starter at Montgomery, admitted that he was "a little bit" surprised to still be around.
"I just try not to really think about it," Rollins said. "Just work hard."
Maddon said there were several reasons why Sonnanstine was the right choice for the bullpen, citing his overall experience, physical resiliency and ability to get out left-handers, throw strikes and contain the running game. "It's a very vital role that I thought he can handle," Maddon said, adding that Sonnanstine could be moved into more high-leverage situations.
But also a factor is that it would have been the wrong move for Davis, a 24-year-old considered one of the game's top starting prospects. He was the favorite for the job after an impressive 2-2, 3.72 September audition, but he insisted he didn't assume anything and was genuinely excited when he got the news.
" 'Relieved' sounds too comfortable," Davis said. "Get the blood flowing. I'm ready to rock."
With Davis in the fifth spot, the Rays have a rotation including James Shields, Matt Garza, Jeff Niemann and David Price that is young (none older than 28), strong and high on potential. It is a short on experience, though, with only 97 big-league wins among them (43 by Shields) and some concern about depth, with prospect Jeremy Hellickson potentially first in line at Triple-A Durham if they need a fill-in starter and Sonnanstine isn't available.
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]