PORT CHARLOTTE — Saturday was long and agonizing for Jake Odorizzi, who said he slept about two hours the previous night in anticipation of The Decision that would determine whether he opens the season in St. Petersburg or Durham, N.C.
“Way too much to think about,” Odorizzi said after he learned he edged out Cesar Ramos and Erik Bedard for the last spot in the Rays’ rotation.
Ramos returns to his role as long man in the bullpen.
Bedard will use the opt-out clause in his minor-league contract to look for a job with another team, according to agent Mark Pieper.
“(Bedard) needs to look out for what’s best for him and his family, we understand that. He has our full support with all of that,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “If it were not to happen, selfishly, we’d love to have him back.”
The fifth spot became available when Jeremy Hellickson had right elbow surgery Jan. 28, and that will keep him out until at least June 1. Odorizzi, who pitched well in 2013 during the last of three stints with the Rays, seemed to have a spot on the Opening Day roster. Then the Rays signed Bedard, a left-hander with 10 years of big-league experience and 215 major-league starts on his resume, the day camp opened, making it a two-man competition.
It became a three-man competition March 4 when Maddon announced Ramos, a starter as a minor-leaguer with San Diego, had joined the race.
“It was a great competition,” Maddon said. “We really had a lot of spirited arguments about it.”
Maddon said all spring that Grapefruit League stats would factor little into the decision. He said past history would count heavily in favor of the pitcher who earned the job.
The Rays loved what Odorizzi did last season, how he improved each time he returned from Durham. He allowed two earned runs in 171⁄3 innings over his last four appearances.
“It starts back in September, when he did pitch well,” Maddon said. “He had a great offseason working out. He came into this camp and we asked him to do certain things, for instance working on that other pitch, which he has, and it’s really been spectacular. So it’s just the whole body of work. We think Jake is the right guy for this particular moment. We really were impressed with what Cesar had done. He moved that dial further ahead regarding what we think he can do as a reliever and as a starter.”
That other pitch, a splitter/change-up Odorizzi learned from Alex Cobb and calls “The Thing,” has developed into one of Odorizzi’s better pitches since he began throwing it in late February.
“I know it helped me tremendously, just as a pitcher,” Odorizzi said. “Regardless of the competition, it took me to a different level in just a short amount of time. From a career standpoint, I think it’s really going to do good things for me, because it’s really become a good pitch for me now.”
Before camp started, Ramos told Rays executive vice president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman that he wanted a chance to return to the rotation.
“We love what Cesar did,” Maddon said. “Actually, he pitched really well. I told him, quite honestly, he’s really raised his abilities in my mind’s eye regarding what he can do, and I think what he did here, even though he did not accomplish the fifth starter role, I can definitely see him pitching in more high-leverage moments.”
Maddon said Ramos could join the rotation as a spot starter or for several starts should the need arise. But for now, the job belongs to Odorizzi.
“Very excited,” Odorizzi said. “I’m really ready to get going that much more now. I think the whole competition was very good. Everybody’s best stuff came out. Cesar did a fantastic job. Really got know Erik, being locker mates with him. They did a fantastic job. I feel honored that I’m the one who got picked out of the three, because I feel any one of us could have made this spot.”