PORT CHARLOTTE — The Tampa Bay Rays took care of one formality Thursday when they announced LHP David Price as the Opening Day starter March 31 against the visiting Blue Jays.
All that remains is naming the fifth starter and announcing the order of the rotation.
The field for the final spot in the rotation was trimmed by one Thursday when RHP Nathan Karns was optioned to Triple-A. That leaves LHP Cesar Ramos, RHP Jake Odorizzi and LHP Erik Bedard. All three are scheduled to pitch Saturday, when the Rays play split-squad games against the visiting Blue Jays and at Bradenton against the Pirates.
“They're all in pretty good shape right now,” manager Joe Maddon said. “We just have to make up our mind relatively soon and iron the whole thing out, but they all looked pretty good. It's a nice problem.”
A decision on who claims the spot vacated by RHP Jeremy Hellickson (elbow surgery), who heads to the bullpen as the long man and who returns to Triple-A Durham (Odorizzi if he doesn't make the Opening Day roster) could be made as early as Sunday. After that, the Rays have to decide on the order of the rotation after Price. Going by the spring rotation, it would be RHP Alex Cobb, LHP Matt Moore, RHP Chris Archer and the fifth starter.
“You can probably write a list down, a pecking order that you think makes sense, and I wouldn't argue with it,” Maddon said. “We'll look at the entire month and how it breaks down for the following guys to pitch, and if there's any better setup regarding who can be two, who can be three, etc. We'll make that announcement relatively soon because we have to, but we're still looking at a couple of little different things that may impact the first month of the season.”
Third opener for Price
Price said he is honored to be named the Opening Day starter, an honor he held in 2011 and 2013. He said it's even more exciting because the Rays are home and he will actually throw the first pitch of the season.
“That sets a tone for us coming out of the gate,” he said. “We're at home, I'm the one who gets to throw it, try to set the tone for the top of the first inning and go from there. If we can get the ball rolling in the first couple of innings, we can build momentum for the rest of the game, for the rest of that series.”
There was a time in the offseason when it was believed Price might be the Opening Day starter for another team.
“All I know is this: When you see him here now, I try to visualize him not being here now, and the different feeling that would engender,” Maddon said. “It would be an entirely different feeling without him being here. It's really good to have him back, man. You got to do it. You got to play that mind game with yourself. What would it be like to not have him here? Not nearly the vibe we have going on right now.”
Karns, Lee among cuts
The Rays optioned Karns, INF Vince Belnome, SS Hak-Ju Lee, LHP Jeff Beliveau, LHP C.J. Riefenhauser, RHP Kirby Yates and OF Kevin Kiermaier to Triple-A Durham. OF Mikie Mahtook was reassigned to minor-league camp.
“We have a lot of guys we're sending out that I can comfortably tell them they're major-league pitchers, and under a different set of circumstances might be here right now,” Maddon said. “They're good, and when you're able to send those kinds of pitchers back to Triple-A knowing that something is going to go awry (on the major-league roster), something is going to go wrong, and you have those kinds of reinforcement, that's pretty encouraging.”
Maddon was impressed with Lee, who returned from season-ending knee surgery last summer to hit .385 this spring.
“He's truly gotten bigger and stronger, and he's changed his hitting mechanics,” Maddon said. “I can see why he was so successful in a brief period of time offensively last year. Much stronger base when he hits, much stronger swing, more forceful swing against righties and lefties.”
Today, the Rays make their first trip to Disney since the 2008 season, when they played the Braves in a split-squad game in March and swept the Blue Jays in a three-game regular-season series in April. ... 2B Ben Zobrist and SS Yunel Escobar had two-run singles in the fourth inning Thursday as the Rays won their third straight game. ... RHP Heath Bell retired all five batters he faced, including the two in the fourth inning when he replaced LHP Matt Moore with two on and one out.