PORT CHARLOTTE — The decision is coming, in the next day or so, and despite all the talking, analyzing and projecting, it really may not be all that difficult.
The Rays are set to finalize their rotation, with the extra man heading to the bullpen, and Wade Davis' rough spring — which continued Sunday — seems to have made it easier for them:
Keep Jeff Niemann in the rotation (and add rookie Matt Moore), put Davis in the bullpen and roll from there.
Officially, manager Joe Maddon said, "it's not really a clear-cut thing."
But watching how they've pitched, listening to what Maddon says they're looking for, it might be.
The primary criterion, Maddon said, is the most obvious: "Who do we think is going to help us win more games earlier in the season."
Next is who could better handle the relief role, with the resiliency to pitch more frequently and get ready quickly. Of note, but with not much weight, is how they match up with early season opponents.
The case can be best made to keep Niemann, who starts today against the Twins in what should be the final act of the audition, in the rotation.
Niemann, 29, is clearly considered the more polished starter. Maddon talks, almost reverently, about his ability to put together streaks of strong games, and when he does that he can be their most effective starter. In three seasons in the rotation, Niemann is 36-21, with a .632 winning percentage that is eighth best in the majors, and a 4.13 ERA.
Though he has worked out of the bullpen a couple of times, his large (6-foot-9, 285-pound) frame makes him seem less likely to transition well and get ready quickly. So does a history of health issues.
Though Davis, 26, has spent the past two seasons in the Rays rotation — going 23-20, 4.27 — Maddon speaks of him as an unfinished product, specifically in becoming more consistent in his approach to maintain his velocity, an issue again in Sunday's 42/3-inning, 91-pitch, seven-hit, three-walk outing.
"For us, and for him as a successful major-league pitcher, whatever it is that permits him to arrive at that 92-95 slot more consistently is what he's looking for, what we're looking for," Maddon said. "That's where we're trying to get to with a Wade Davis — to think in a matter that's going to permit him to do that more consistently. And when he arrives at that point, my goodness, he's going to really take off."
In his previous start, Davis started slowly then ramped up the velocity as the game went on. Sunday, he started well then tailed off, saying his arm felt tired.
In the bullpen, theoretically, Davis would have a different mind-set, knowing he could go all out since he had to work only an inning, or a few innings.
The decision is significant, though not likely permanent as the Rays, via injury or strategy, expect the odd man out to be back in the rotation at some point this season. "It's not a life sentence," Maddon said.
Maddon is adamant they won't make it based on spring stats, that they're "not as superficial as that."
Still, Davis is 1-2, 4.91 over 181/3 innings, having allowed 30 baserunners (22 hits, seven walks, one hit batter). Niemann is 0-2, 4.32 in 81/3 innings, allowing 10 hits. (Plus he worked five innings in a minor-league game, allowing four hits and a walk.)
"I would have loved to have done a lot better," Davis said. "But it's one of those things that's tough to analyze it like that. The past couple spring trainings, I've had some rough springs. … I'm definitely on a better track of being ready for the season than I have been in the past physically."
And if he does end up in the pen? "I'll go down there and kick (butt), too," he said. "It don't matter to me."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected]