SARASOTA — The Rays have come to a decision and this morning will end the speculation, though not the conversation, in setting the rest of their rotation behind ace David Price.
The primary issue is their choice for a fifth starter. Though incumbent Jeff Niemann has seemed to pitch better this spring, free agent signee Roberto Hernandez seems to profile better — at least for the start of the season — and looks to be their choice.
If you were seeking hints, one came when manager Joe Maddon was asked if Niemann's strong showing Wednesday made what already was a tough decision harder.
"Yeah," he said, "it did make it a little bit more difficult."
Also to be announced is the order in which the starters will pitch. Maddon has suggested several times it won't end up as it was lined up all spring, with the most likely scenario seeming to be Hernandez, a veteran with the ability to work deep into games, slotting third, thus separating Jeremy Hellickson and Matt Moore in an effort to preserve the bullpen depth.
That seemed an even more likely scenario when the Rays later Wednesday said Hernandez would move up a day and throw three innings in a minor-league game Saturday, which just happens to line him up to be on full rest to start Thursday, the third game of the season.
Maddon said a number of factors went into the decisions and reiterated that whichever pitcher isn't chosen will go to the bullpen so cool the trade speculation — and that it is just for now.
"This is just how it's going to break with," he said. "Things change during the course of the season. It's just to have the appropriate number of guys available to you with the season in progress that at the end of the season puts you in the playoffs."
For the Rays to get there, no matter how they set it up or what changes they make in a few months or weeks, the key to success — especially given the absence of James Shields and the 222 innings he averaged over the past six seasons — is for the starters to pitch deep into games.
"Obviously, I get the ball first on (Tuesday), and I want to go out there and be efficient, and I want to get deep into a ball game," Price said. "That's what I'm trying to challenge all the other guys. Six innings is not good enough anymore for us.
"We want to get to that seven-inning mark, that eight-inning mark. We want to be the team that logs the most seven-inning starts, stuff like that. If we can get the most quality starts …six (innings) and three (runs or fewer), that's not quality. That's not good enough around here anymore. That's something we've talked about. We all understand that. Getting deeper into ball games is something that we all want to do."
The Rays have led the American League in seven-or-more inning starts the past two seasons, 66 last season and 79 the year before.
But without Shields, who was traded to Kansas City, there is some reason for concern if they can keep it up. Hellickson and Moore each have only six starts of seven or more innings among their 31 starts. Alex Cobb, the other member of the rotation, got through seven 11 times among 23 starts. (Price got through seven innings 23 times among his 31 starts; neither Niemann, who was injured, nor Hernandez, who had identity fraud issues, pitched much last season).
Maddon said it's as important to the relievers that the starters working deep, throwing strikes and being aggressive — i.e., not pitching to miss bats — is imperative.
"No question, when we can get a mind-set like that among the starting pitchers, that's part of the reason bullpens are so good," he said.
"When bullpens are asked to cover more than that on a consistent basis, it's hard to have a really good bullpen. They just get worn out. So really, it's up to the starters to have that kind of mind-set."
Marc Topkin can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter at @TBTimes_Rays.