On the surface, looking strictly at the numbers, the move the Rays made late Friday night to bring Scott Kazmir back into the rotation might have seemed the obvious call.
Measured by his overall body of work this season, Andy Sonnanstine without question has been the Rays' least effective starter. His 6.61 ERA in 15 starts says enough, but consider also that the 60 earned runs he has allowed this year are the most of any pitcher in the American League, and the 103 hits he has surrendered rank fourth.
In most fantasy leagues, Sonnanstine probably hit the scrap heap long before Friday. But this was no point-and-click decision.
In fact, it's probably fair to say the Rays agonized over this move - as much because of who Sonnanstine is and what he accomplished last year as anything else. As recently as Thursday afternoon, with two days worth of meetings on the topic already in the books, Manager Joe Maddon swore he had no idea what the Rays would do and didn't sound as if he was particularly enamored with any of their options.
Even though they had figured for at least a couple of weeks that Kazmir would be ready around this time, nothing that happened in the meantime made the decision any easier.
Sonnanstine had shown improvement in recent outings and shaved a full run off his ERA since the end of May. At the same time, David Price - the man who is actually replacing Sonnanstine in the rotation, as a healthy Kazmir is guaranteed a spot - has continued to confound with his inconsistency. The steady string of walks Price issued his first few times out has been replaced by a sharp uptick in hits and runs, leading to losses his last two times out.
The Rays could have found a way to justify sending Price back to Durham for more seasoning even though they know he can get big-league hitters out. But they had said long before he was recalled from the minors that they didn't intend to shuttle him back and forth between the majors and Triple-A. Once he arrived, their intention was for their top prospect to stay.
Sonnanstine has had dominant starts in what amounted to two full seasons in the Rays' rotation, beginning in June of 2007, but even the untrained eye is fully aware of Price's remarkable abilities. They need the big lefty to be a force, and they're banking on him being just a click or two away from having it all fall into place.
Obliged to pick one of those two to remain in the rotation, the Rays made the call they had to make. (Though Jeff Niemann's job wasn't guaranteed, I don't believe he was in much jeopardy; he can't be sent to the minors without being exposed to waivers and has outpitched Sonnanstine.)
"It certainly wasn't an easy decision," Rays executive vice president Andrew Friedman said. "Sonny was a big part of our success in 2008, and we still expect that he'll be a big part of our success in '09. The way he pitched in 2008, we feel like he's absolutely a member of a championship-caliber rotation. There's certain things that we want him to work on, get out of the public eye for a little bit and work on those things, and knock the door down and come back and help this team win games."
On his way to a 13-9 record and a 4.38 ERA in 32 regular-season starts last year, Sonnanstine gave up 9.9 hits per nine innings and walked only 1.7 batters per nine - sixth among AL starters. This year, those numbers have slipped to 11.4 hits and 2.4 walks, and his home run totals are way up.
The Rays could have sent Sonnanstine to the bullpen - where he might land in the near future regardless with Wade Davis and others on the way - but they want him to remain stretched out in case they need a starter because of injury or ineffectiveness in the coming weeks and months.
The way things go, Sonnanstine could very well end up back in the Rays' rotation at some point this season, hopefully with a string of confidence-boosting Triple-A starts to his credit by then.
If it comes to that, the decision on who to recall would be an easy one.