Howell, Jackson fighting for No. 5 slot
Competition for Rays' final rotation spot down to wire
ST. PETERSBURG -- Six pitchers set their sights on the No. 5 slot in the Devil Rays' starting rotation when pitchers and catchers first congregated in the middle of February.Just over a month later, that number has been whittled down to two: left-hander J.P. Howell and right-hander Edwin Jackson. In the rearview mirror are the likes of Tim Corcoran, Jae Kuk Ryu, Brian Stokes and Jason Hammel. Of that group, only Hammel was optioned to Triple-A Durham. The others remain in camp seeking spots in the bullpen. But that decision will remain for another day. The decision about who claims the No. 5 spot is front and center and could come early this week. "We are all talking about it as of [Saturday] and [Sunday]," said Rays manager Joe Maddon. "Maybe by Tuesday we'll have a better idea. [Being in Winter Haven on Monday], it's a tough day to really have an organized situation meeting. We'll go to Dunedin [on Tuesday], so we might be able to get something in." Jackson and Howell each have made a legitimate case to stake claim to the job. Jackson, 23, has a 95 mph fastball with a world of promise that has yet to be minted. In six appearances this spring, he has a 1.84 ERA. Howell, 23, lacks the big fastball -- his heater rarely registers higher than 85 mph -- but he knows how to pitch. He has a 1.80 ERA in six spring appearances. Not exactly an easy call for the Rays' brain trust. "I felt like I put a lot more pressure on this coaching staff than I have in the past with other coaching staffs," Jackson said. "[My] confidence is probably the best it's ever been, and I'm having fun. That's the good part, you know? It's not always go home and think about the game. Now, it's go home and relax and feel good about yourself." While the competition looks fairly level, Jackson appears to have an edge when it comes to the business of baseball. He is out of options, which means if he doesn't make the team, he would have to clear waivers to go down to the Minor Leagues. Given Jackson's talent, it's likely he'd be headed to another team. But Maddon said Jackson being out of options won't be the deciding factor. "All those factors always have some form of consideration," Maddon said. "We're just trying to go based on what we saw this spring. And again, there's times when a moment like that would matter more than others. Right now, with E.J., he's pitched so well I think that's a non-issue. They both have pitched well, and now we're going to try to pick the guy we think is the best with us right now."
So the thinking is if Jackson doesn't win the competition for the fifth spot, he'd likely head to the Rays' bullpen. However, Howell is more likely to head to Durham if he doesn't claim the spot."Yes, it would be unfair to him [to be put in the bullpen] I think, in a sense, because he has predominantly been a starter," Maddon said. "And if you just ask the guy out of the blue just to become a relief pitcher, I don't think it's appropriate without giving him some kind of chance to develop that in the Minor Leagues. If it's a guy who has done it in the past and you want to pop him out there, that's different. ... I wouldn't want to just do that to J.P., you'd almost be setting him up for failure by doing something like that." So the decision makers will meet, discuss, examine cause and effect and eventually spit out a decision on who gets the job. "We'll see. We're still debating all those kind of issues," Maddon said. "Again, I just love [Howell]. I love his makeup. He's such a battler. He's going to be the anomaly guy, where he doesn't have to throw 90 to get people out. Again, I'm not sure about any of that. The coaching staff, [executive vice president of baseball operations] Andrew [Friedman], the whole front office, we're all talking about this." Because the Rays have a day off after Opening Day, they are likely to run out their first four pitchers, starting with No. 1 Scott Kazmir, then repeat those four again before the No. 5 starter makes his first start of the season. The identity of the pitcher who will take the mound in Texas remains to be seen. Up next: The Rays travel to Dunedin on Tuesday for a 1:05 p.m. ET contest against the Blue Jays. Left-hander Casey Fossum will start for the Rays and will be followed by right-handers Shawn Camp, Dan Miceli, Al Reyes and Gary Glover. Reyes' performance will be of note since it will be the first time the veteran will pitch on back-to-back days this spring. Right-hander Geremi Gonzalez will start for the Blue Jays.
Bill Chastain is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.